Keeping just busy enough

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Is busyness the new status symbol, Jan Aitken wonders.

Jan Aitken
Jan Aitken

It’s nice to know we’re past the shortest day of the year, yay. Roll on spring! Unfortunately we lack any long weekends to help ease us through winter. Our next long weekend is in October, Labour Day. That’s the day we celebrate the enshrinement of an eight-hour working day. We, in New Zealand, were among the first in the world to gain an eight-hour working day and celebrated with a public holiday in 1890.

Gaining the eight-hour working day and subsequently the 40-hour working week were regarded as forward thinking methods to help New Zealanders achieve a good mix of work and leisure and enhance their general wellbeing.

Having time to relax and enjoy the company of friends and family, or maybe get into the great outdoors, go for walks, visit the beach, have a holiday, just relax and revive! You see, once upon a time having leisure time was seen as a status symbol.

However, long gone are the days when a life of material comfort and endless leisure time signify prestige. It seems that everywhere we turn people are busy. Is busyness the new status symbol?  Are we becoming caught up in the cult of busy? I was challenged by my own coach to think about ‘‘busyness’’ some weeks ago and I admit I too had got caught up in being "busy", of rushing from one thing to the next. Time to re-evaluate. Checking out New Zealand news articles confirmed that like many of our other Western counterparts we Kiwis are identifying as being busier, more stressed, overwhelmed and experiencing more anxiety than we used to.

Recent research from Columbia and Harvard University showed that our measure of success, previously material goods and leisure time, has shifted. Sometime during the past 25-30 years the measure for success has quietly morphed. The researchers found that those people who work constantly (to gain material goods/financial reward) and skip leisure were awarded greater social affirmation and viewed as being more successful. The busier people were, the more "valuable" they were perceived as being.

I found myself wondering how on earth that happened?

You don’t necessarily need formal studies to be convinced we are becoming a time-starved culture. Simply ask someone how they are and the most likely response nowadays is "I’m busy". Even at the supermarket checkout I’m often asked "had a busy day?". Perhaps that question came about because the checkout operator constantly heard "busy" when they politely asked "how’s your day?".

It’s difficult to define busy. What might be busy to one person isn’t to another or maybe someone’s busy is completely overwhelming to someone else. Measuring busy on a time scale alone might not be that useful. Perhaps we could try to look at things a little differently.

Being busy isn’t always bad. Being busy can be enjoyable too. Maybe it has more to do with the quality of the activity we’re doing and whether or not that aligns with our values and life aspirations? It’s easy to get caught up in things we "should" do and the "keep up with the Joneses" mentality. But in trying to maximise all we do, we place unrealistic expectations on ourselves, we risk becoming burnt out and exhausted trying to be the ideal parent, partner, worker, friend, son, daughter etc.

So, what’s the solution to the increasing lack of time we have: do less! In those two small words lie a big challenge.

In order to do less it’s important to really understand your priorities, what is it you want for your life, what are your goals, your values, your strengths and needs?

When you understand these you can choose to do what fits with what you want out of life. Choosing to focus on your priorities and leaving the rest can be incredibly liberating.

Take a good honest look at how you spend your time. Like me there will be some things that simply don’t enhance your life and are total timewasters. You don’t have to cut them out but at least be aware that they take up your time and if you’re "time poor" then ask yourself how they serve you?

Get clear on what you want out of life, then put a framework in place to move in that direction. Let go of needing to be the "ideal" ...  whatever. Being good is good enough.

Now, I’m just going to put my feet up and have a think about all this!

- Jan Aitken is a Dunedin-based life coach.

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'Busy' seems to mean engaged and productive. You can assume a busy demeanour by always carrying a piece of paper. The greeting 'Busy day?' is a bit passé. 'Yes, run off my feet on 22 November, 1975'.