Mental Health and the Cult of Busyness

People seem to like being busy nowadays. If work doesn’t take up enough of their time, they schedule leisure and side projects with alarming rigidity. Even children have their “free” time segmented into extracurricular classes, clubs, groups and playdates. They then complain that they never have enough time – except it’s not complaining, because they detail their many activities in such a way that it’s showing off. Claiming “I don’t have the time” has become shorthand for “Look how busy and important I am.”


The implication is that if you don’t fill your days with a list of tasks longer than all of your limbs combined, you don’t matter. You’re not important. So where does that leave those of us with mental health problems?

I can’t schedule every minute of my day because I don’t know how my mental health will affect me on any given day. The best I can do is work around my mental illness. I can spend hours “doing nothing” – not out of choice, but because anxiety and depression paralyse me. I get trapped in negative thinking patterns and it drains my energy.
I would prefer to be able to fill my day to the brim, but I don’t think that’s particularly healthy. It places a lot of pressure on people, especially when things don’t go according to plan (which is inevitable at some point). If I try to live like this (and I have, in the past), I go into meltdown. My mental illness gets worse and I lose sight of what is truly important. Unfortunately, many people live like this without questioning its effects, because busyness has become the norm.

Busyness seems to be embedded in our culture. Whereas in past centuries people worked long hours to put food on the table, many people nowadays work to get more – more gadgets, more exotic holidays, more expensive cars, bigger houses. The problem is that a lot of this stuff is meaningless. It doesn’t make people happier and has a negative impact on their mental health. Is it a coincidence that mental illness appears to have increased as society has amassed more money and consumer goods?

Perhaps the cult of busyness wouldn’t be such a problem if it didn’t involve so much judgment.

People constantly judge how others spend their time. I know someone who when asked by a colleague whether she was doing overtime on a particular day, said no because she had things to do and was told “well, we all have things to do.” Yes, but it happened to be this person’s birthday – and her father had died suddenly 10 days before. I suggested she should have pointed this out, since funeral arrangements are pretty big priorities, but why should she? Nobody should have to justify how they spend their time.

Yet everyone seems to be clamouring to justify how they decide to spend their own time. How many times have you heard someone rattle off a list of reasons when asked whether they are doing something or attending an event? We feel obliged to explain ourselves when all that’s needed is a simple “no”.

We might feel the need to explain ourselves because other people are so judgmental. I have lost count of the number of times people have told me “I don’t have time to read” when they actually meant “I don’t consider reading a priority”, suggesting that I spend my time frivolously because I have always made time to read. Because reading isn’t important to them, they judge me for reading; they assume I don’t do anything else important, because their fuzzy logic dictates that anyone doing important things doesn’t have time to read. Actually, reading is essential for me because I am a writer. I also consider it vital for cultivating and maintaining good mental health. I think that’s pretty damned important. But why should I have to explain that reading is not just a hobby for me, but an integral part of my career and mental healthcare?

 

A major problem with the cult of busyness is its assumption of uniformity. It assumes we are all alike and have similar priorities which we address in similar ways. Mental health issues are not considered.

Mental illness has forced me to carve out my own path. I can’t fit the mould created by the cult of busyness. And people’s proselytization of the cult of busyness makes me feel worse, implying that I’m inadequate or unimportant. That because I don’t schedule every moment of my life, I don’t matter.

Must-do list

So here is my plea to everyone, whether or not you subscribe to the cult of busyness:

1. Please don’t ask other people to justify how they spend their time.

It’s none of your business. People are free to select their own priorities and organise their lives accordingly. They might be dealing with problems which make it difficult to live what you consider to be a conventional life. They might just have different goals and interests, which means they value activities which you consider worthless and vice versa. It doesn’t matter why they spend their time differently to how you spend yours – they don’t owe you an explanation.

2. Don’t judge how others spend their time.

What seems unimportant to you might be essential for them. You don’t know whether particular activities are coping strategies or simple pleasures in an otherwise difficult life. Many activities have varying purposes and levels of importance in different contexts. For example: cooking can be a decadent hobby for one person, a way to feed their family nutritious food for another and the means of earning a living for another person. Unless you fully understand someone’s situation (which might not be possible, even if you are close), you are in no position to judge how they live.

3. Stop using the phrase “I don’t have the time”.

It’s an excuse, not a reason, and implies judgement of people who choose to make time for whatever you claim not to have the time to do. Everyone has the same amount of time: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Be honest and say “that’s not a priority for me at the moment” or, better still, stop trying to explain your choices. If someone invites you somewhere and you don’t want to go or have a prior engagement, say so briefly: “no, thank you” or “I’m already booked, but perhaps another time”. If someone asks you if you do something, just say yes or no. If they don’t ask and are just talking about an activity they enjoy, say nothing.

4. Stop showing off about being busy – especially through pseudo-complaints.

Some of us would love to be able to maintain your packed schedule. A successful career and vibrant social life? Yes, please! What you consider chores, others might consider to be components of a dream life. Next time you complain about having to ferry your kids around and clean the house, think about the people who would love to have children and their own home but are prevented from having them by circumstance.

5. Don’t make unsolicited comments about how other people spend their time.

I have a neighbour who thinks it’s amusing to say “all right for some!” when he sees other people sitting in their gardens. Regardless of whether they are also looking after children or have been at work all day. His thought process appears to be “they are relaxing and I am not, therefore I need to point out that I am busy”. I’m sure there is no malicious intent, but the implication, once again, is that he is more important than anyone who is not working or running errands.

Purple scream

This follows on from not judging how other people spend their time; you don’t know whether they have been relaxing all day or are snatching a quick break between tasks. Either way, it doesn’t matter. How they spend their time doesn’t affect you. The “all right for some” comment seems innocuous, but it can be hurtful and harmful. Someone (cough, my mum, cough) says it when she sees me watching TV, which makes me feel annoyed if I have spent most of the day working and upset if my mental health has prevented me from working. As a rule of thumb, don’t comment on how someone spends their time unless it has a direct impact on you – and be sensitive, because you never know what problems they are hiding.

6. Stop creating more work for yourself.

Most people are constantly busy through choice, not necessity. The trouble is, many convince themselves that the opposite is true. Your house will not fall down or turn into a hovel if you vacuum once a week, instead of every other day. If your evening classes have become chores which don’t contribute to your wellbeing or other priorities, they are not worth the sacrifice. Make work emails wait until morning if they are not urgent, instead of frantically answering them at midnight. Busywork can be as much of a time-suck as watching TV for hours – it yields similar results, with none of the pleasure.

7. Consider opting out.

A lot of people who buy into the cult of busyness seem to be stressed and unhappy. If this is the case for you, why not stop? You might be surprised to learn that you can cope with working fewer hours, even if it means only having one holiday a year or going without the latest iPhone, and be happier for doing so. You could discover you have more fun if you just hang out with your partner, instead of scheduling daytrips and dates every weekend. If you are already stressed and unhappy, what have you got to lose?

8. Finally, think about your mental health – and other people’s.

It’s frustrating when people make assumptions about what I can/can’t do, based on their own experiences and/or perceptions of me on good days. There are days when I can out-busy anyone, when I feel motivated, productive and full of energy. But they are few and far between. My mental health problems don’t let me act like a fully paid up member of the cult of busyness.

And that might be a good thing. While some people thrive under pressure (myself included), nobody benefits from constant stress with no respite. Even if you are coping well, consider how your lifestyle might affect your health in future – especially your mental health.

 

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