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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Trained myself to be less busy and get my life back

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I am a robot, programmed to obliterate my to-do list. During the day, I direct a research laboratory, write papers, and teach classes as a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. Come 4:30 pm, I run a kid limousine service, shuttling between various activities, preparing dinner, helping with homework and the evening routine. I scurry through these activities — often missing the moments of joy embedded in everyday life — until I have some sort of nightly electrical shortage, then crash out on the couch. I reboot in the morning and do it all again.


I am addicted to busyness. I am embarrassed to say it, largely because I am lucky to have a wonderful life and a great career, and, to be fair, the struggles, demands, and slings and arrows are all of my own doing (especially the part about having kids; I know I was there for that).

I created this mess — a life at breakneck speed from the moment I wake until I finally watch 30 minutes of Netflix before drifting off. But, I recently hit rock bottom, feeling as if I was going through the motions of my life rather than truly living it.

I’m not the only one who feels overwhelmed — you probably do too

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I don’t think I am alone in my feelings about busyness, nor do I think these feelings are especially new for the average working adult. I might be alone at my rock bottom, but there are many indicators that we are feeling more overcommitted, overscheduled, overtired, and overburdened than ever before.

Brigid Schulte, in her 2014 book, Overwhelmed, writes incisively about this trend, “So much do we value busyness, researchers have found a human ‘aversion’ to idleness and need for ‘justifiable busyness.’” My favorite example from her book: Researchers can track the rise of busyness in holiday cards dating back to the 1960s. In holiday cards, Americans used to share news about our lives (the joys and sorrows of the year), but now we’re more likely than ever to mention how busy we are as well.

As a clinical psychologist, I have worked with many people who are trying to make substantial changes — from improving a marriage to overcoming generalized anxiety or depression. The idea that these changes begin with acknowledging that there’s a problem is a truism. Personal responsibility is the vehicle for behavior change. When it came to my busyness, though, I had what might be described as extreme difficulty looking beyond the hamster wheel. (Professionally, people in my line of work call this “very little insight.”)

I don’t think I am busier than anyone else. My wife and friends are just as busy as me. I think the difference is that I became aware of my busyness and started to hate it. I was feeling claustrophobic in my own life. I asked my wife if I could retire and get some time back in the day. (She said no.) Then I started to wonder about the opposite of busyness. I thought immediately of the slow food movement. I needed a slow food movement in my everyday life.

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I realized busyness had devoured my values

The first change took root for me about 18 months ago when the graduate program that I direct started teaching Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (pronounced as the single word ACT) to our doctoral students, who are future clinical psychologists. ACT is a scientifically validated psychotherapy treatment for a range of mental health problems. Basically, it’s a form of talk therapy.

A central tenet of ACT is that emotional pain is driven in large part by getting over-involved in difficult experiences and thoughts (that is, going over and over things in our mind, getting stuck in our experiences, and being unable to create any psychological distance between yourself and the terribleness of things). Consequently, when we become stuck on or in our emotional pain, we go through each day in a way that is disconnected from our core values — the essential principles that, ideally, come to guide our lives. In ACT, value-centered living is paramount, and a big part of the treatment is to help people separate themselves from the painful language in their heads (“This is so awful. I feel so terrible.”) to get on with the business of living a meaningful life.

As I learned more about ACT and started incorporating its methods into my psychotherapy practice with clients, something important dawned on me: Busyness devoured my values. I was working, parenting, loving, emailing, and exercising in a sort of mindless way, just doing and doing. Busyness is not, nor was it ever, a guiding principle in my life. Yet, I had let the inertia of doing take deep root without realizing what was happening to me. To get more out of life — more meaning, more joie de vivre — I needed to start doing less and to become more conscious about my choices.

How I started to reclaim my life from busyness

Image result for less work my lifeI started with a simple value: being outside. I am a regular exerciser, but I was losing touch with being outside and moving my body through space. I began walking more, that’s all. It was not a hard change to make — I just park a little farther from work and hoof it a bit more, or I go for a nice stroll during lunch. It would not be an overstatement to say that an additional 40 minutes a day of walking just two or three times a week has changed me in a profound way. Walking provides time to think, to be energized by nature, and to feel less frenzied. Quite dramatically, I am much less of a robot and much more of a human being.

Next, I focused on valuing idleness. I do not mean being a sloth, only that I was coming to see the value of doing as little as possible for long periods of time. I just finished Tim Kreider’s incredibly thoughtful and hilarious book of essays We Learn Nothing. The audiobook includes a bonus chapter called “Laziness: A Manifesto.” Kreider writes, “This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. Obviously your life cannot possibly be silly, or trivial, or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked every hour of the day. All this noise, and rush, and stress seem contrived to cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

I cannot say if I my busyness was a hedge against some sort of existential emptiness, but all the doing certainly left me feeling empty in the end. Now, with idleness in mind, I just park myself on the couch as often as possible and see what happens. Mostly, I am looking for an opportunity to enjoy the moments of life in an unstructured way; I am looking for more play. In my idleness last night, I spent a long time just tickling my 5-year-old daughter, pretending to scare her, and lying on my back with her in “airplane position” while she perfected a move she called the hummingbird. That was the best half-hour of my year so far. What is more, I’ve found that the less I work, the better my work actually is in the end, from the ability to attend to students and clients to the creative energies needed for doing science.

As part of my effort to create time and space for doing less, I also got off Facebook. At first, I was simply trying to escape the toxicity of the election on social media. In time, though, I realized I was also escaping an attentional black hole, one with an incredible gravitational pull. I would never willfully stand in the middle of a room noisy room with everyone screaming for my attention, yet this is best metaphor I can think of to describe my mind on Facebook. I was weak and could not resist its forces, fair enough, but I also started to see it as filler and fluff. When I got past my FOMO and let it go, I gained back many moments in my day.

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I’ve also tried to get serious about laughing more. For me, busyness’s neighbor is seriousness. Seriousness is overrated, and I feel much healthier and even childlike when I am not taking myself so seriously, and when I am trying to make other people laugh.

Finally, my relationships. In my days of busyness, I loathed the work pop-in — too many unscheduled interruptions. Now, I’m coming to appreciate people dropping by to say hello and to joke around (see: laughter). My door is a little more open, so to speak. I am also focusing on my local drinking club, where a few friends have been going for beers together for several years. Sometimes I am too busy and have to miss, but that really bothers me now. Friendships are sustenance, just like food.

Have I sustained these changes? Sort of. I am working as much as ever and find it hard to not get sucked into the trappings of busyness. Sometimes I look at my schedule shout to myself, “Too much, too much!” When this is the case, I just go for a walk. Or I just get on the floor and mess with my kids. Or I follow the mantra of our club: “Relax, have a homebrew.” (If my busyness freakout is in the morning, I do wait for the homebrew, in case you’re wondering. At least until lunch.)

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By and large, though, I am feeling better than I have in a long time — more deliberate in the choices I make, more connected to the people around me, and more energized for the demands of the day. The surprising irony here, for me at least, is that by doing less, I am getting way more out life. I have banished my inner robot.

David Sbarra, PhD, is a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona. His new ebook, Love, Loss, and the Space Between, is available on Amazon.

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