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The Culture of Busyness: If You Stopped Being a Human Doing, Who Would You Be?

We live in a culture that approves of busyness. Our country was founded on the Protestant Work Ethic, also referred to as the Puritan Work Ethic, which emphasizes that a person’s work ethic, frugality and discipline represent their closesness to God.

Similarly, the American dream espouses that if you work hard in America, you can be anything you want and achieve anything you set your mind to. The tenets of these philosophies are at the heart of American capitalism and morality. If we aren’t busy, we must be … lazy.

Humans like to be productive. It feels good to accomplish something. We experience an intrinsic reward in overcoming a challenge, learning something new, or just getting s*hit done. We can call it healthy achieving.

But there’s a line we cross when the compulsion to be busy all the time interferes with our quality of life — our relationships, health and, well, all the things that make life worth living.

We’ve turned into “human doings," and we’re perpetuating this in our children. According to Jim Taylor, PhD, Psychology Today, a “’human doing’ is someone whose self-esteem — how they feel about themselves — is overly connected with their accomplishments. This relationship between self-esteem and outcome becomes the basis for their own self-love as well … children come to love themselves only when they are successful and experience nothing less than self-loathing when they fail.”

When I am acting like a “human doing,” my self-esteem comes from what I DO, rather than who I AM. I equate my self-worth with how much I get done in a day, which creates a never-ending to-do list. What makes it worse is that failure is intolerable, which then inhibits my ability to learn from my mistakes. Even “self-care” can become another item on the to-do list that creates stress because it gets squeezed into an already overscheduled day. It’s an impossible way to live. I’ve been there.

When I was in college I was always doing something, always had something on my schedule. In hindsight, I see it as an attempt to avoid the insecurity I felt. I was intimidated by how smart my fellow students were, and “being busy” was a convenient excuse for why I didn’t spend more time on that paper or studying for a test or why I didn’t read the whole book. It’s a classic strategy for a perfectionist because we never have to find out, for sure, that we aren’t as ______ (bright, talented, gifted, etc.) as someone else because we didn’t give it our best shot, anyway. We “half-assed it.”

How do you move away from being a “human doing”?

First, recognize what your motivations are. What could you be avoiding by being busy? When I was in college, I was avoiding the discomfort of seeing whether I could perform at the same level as my classmates. Because I was in “human doing” mode, I couldn’t tolerate having my writing compared to others, and finding out that I wasn’t as good. While it’s completely subjective, the idea that I might not be “as good,” was so intolerable that I couldn’t bear to put my best effort into anything. Crazy, I know but it’s a great way of not having to think (“I’m too busy to think”) or to expect yourself to do anything perfectly — how could you? You’re busy.

I’ve also found that another driver of busyness is the pursuit of pleasing others. Part of what made college so busy was my sorority. I wanted to be seen as someone who participated, so I went to every damn social function they had. If I weren’t so worried about others thinking I was “lame” (as if I really knew what anyone thought), I would’ve gotten a lot more sleep.

While we all seek approval, compulsive people pleasing is exhausting and insidious because: 1) We can’t control what other people think or feel. 2) It’s crazy making. With every new person in our life, we try to accommodate what we think their expectations of us are. Every new person means a new set of expectations, and we quickly surpass the number of people we can please and so we run around like chickens with our heads cut off. Hence: busyness, as well as confusion and exhaustion. How much of what you do is driven by wanting to look good to others?

The process of figuring out what’s truly important to you and what gives you meaning isn’t always easy. Sometimes it means confronting long-held beliefs, family values or cultural precepts that don’t work for you. We are so conditioned to DO — achieve, climb the ladder, advance our careers, get promoted — that we may not realize what’s our true desire because it’s buried so deep. It means being really honest with yourself, which may come in layers.

I’ve liked to write since I first learned to make my own words with a pencil. I write because I feel compelled to do it. If I were stranded on a deserted island, I would want a notebook and a pen. Self-expression and self-knowledge is what fuels my desire to write, and when I tried to be a professional copywriter, it was awful. I was writing for all the wrong reasons — to earn a living, to please my fellow colleagues, clients, and customers, I didn’t give a hoot about the product.

What are the top one or two values you live by? Look at your actions and where you spend your time. What are you currently prioritizing? If you have more than five values you say are important to you, that may be why your life is so busy — you’re trying to fulfill a laundry list of values — but are they what is truly important to you? How many of the values are “shoulds”: I should care about the environment; I should prioritize my family, etc. When you are looking at how you spend your time, ask the activity supports your values. If you’re frazzled, choose one value that’s most important to you at this juncture in your life. One. By putting that value first, how does it affect all the other activities in your life?

My top values are freedom and integrity. When I look at my actions, they all have to do with creating freedom (freedom of time and location, financial freedom or freedom from my inner critic) and integrity. My priority is having a coaching business because it is a strategy for achieving what’s important to me: 1) I want time to write, visit family, and walk my dog. Being self-employed helps me achieve this. (freedom); and 2) What gives me meaning is helping people; coaching is one way I achieve this, which keeps me in integrity with myself.

So, who would you BE if you stopped DOING? If you're ready to find out, sign up for a complimentary session with me.

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