The cult of busyness

I hope some of you may have been able to catch up with the excellent series on BBC Radio 4 from Oliver Burkeman about that very modern problem, busyness.

I love a well-researched documentary any day of the week, but this podcast took my insight into how mindfulness might help our mental and physical health to a whole new level.

I won’t spoil it for you if you want to listen yourself (do make the time in your busy schedule…!) but here are a few vignettes:

  • Our society now values busyness as some sort of badge of honour, somehow equated to delivery, efficiency and success. A frequent response to ‘how are you?’ is ‘I’m good…busy, good’. Self-improvement is often at the root of busyness, as perceived status may now come more from reputation, driven by our underlying insecurities.
  • Busyness is a choice. Our brains can’t distinguish between tasks as to whether they are essential or not, they are just tasks, whether it’s checking emails or writing a chapter of a thesis. Our brains need a rest from these tasks quite often.
  • In the workplace, effort is now monetised rather than efficiency and the striving is part of the reward. How do you feel when you’ve read through all those emails after a holiday? You’ve probably not delivered much work by responding to them, but it felt good/busy to tick them off. (As an aside, I have a friend who deletes all work emails where she is only cc’ed…she says they’ll come and find her if it’s that important)
  • We regularly fall into the ‘scarcity trap’ by not giving ourselves time to think clearly and carefully. If we keep switching tasks, we fall victim to the Pashler effect where our efficiency drops by as much as 40%. Try to cluster similar activities together.
  • Our brains are naturally best at remembering incomplete tasks – this is known as the Zeigarnik effect and it adds to our feeling of a ‘busy, stressed brain’. We also tend towards structured procrastination, where we focus on tasks that give a feeling of progress but may have little impact. ‘Easy’ and ‘immediate’ are more tempting than ‘slow’.

The final episode in the series stressed that idleness is good. We are not machines but our work lives are structured as if we were. We all need good quality free time, and this might mean time being truly alone where we can meet with ourselves, check in and just think. Always keep 30 minutes of contingency for this in your day (and come along to yoga!). This gives us the space we need to figure out the stuff we really want to focus on, at work or at home.

With our life expectancy in the UK now falling, we all owe breathing space to ourselves and our families and friends. If you find switching off difficult, a whole mind activity such as yoga, games, knitting, sewing and colouring can help. Focus on the now. The Headspace website and app are also very good, and there are other similar offerings out there. Looking forward to seeing you on the mat very soon for our own antithesis to busyness! Namaste.

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