Have you ever noticed how “busy” has become the new “fine”? As in, when you used to ask somebody how they were doing, they would answer, “Fine.” But nowadays, everybody answers, “Busy.”
Sometimes, people say it just to sound important. But most of the time, the person legitimately means it. They’re busy. There are too many responsibilities and not enough time in the day nor energy in the body to accomplish everything they want to do.
Busy has become the default state for many of us. But is the state improving our lives? Certainly not.
Statistics indicate that 75% of parents are too busy to read to their children at night. A rising number of children are being placed in day cares and after-school activities. Americans are having a hard time finding opportunity for vacations these days. About 33% of Americans are living with extreme stress daily, and nearly 50% of people say they regularly lie awake at night because of stress.
This is a problem. Activity is good, but we can become too busy.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
While busyness seems to be the prevailing condition of the human spirit these days, it is not true of everyone. In other words, busyness is not inevitable.
Some people are not busy. They appear calm, collected, and in control… but still productive. They are enviable in the life they live. What do they understand about life that others do not?
Learning from the Differences
Over the past fourteen years of minimizing my possessions and embracing greater intentionality in life, I’ve given lots of thought to this question:
How do we unbusy our lives but continue to pursue a significant and productive life?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot from watching others and embracing habits and practices in my own life.
There is a difference between busy and non-busy people. Here are some of the most significant differences I have noticed:
Unbusy people know their purpose.
Unbusy people have thought long and hard about the legacy they want to leave, the goals they choose to pursue, and the significance they wish to discover.
These purposes may change or evolve over the course of one’s life, but they provide boundaries and a road map for the way they spend their days and time.
Goals shape us and goals move us. When we become resolved in the goals we pursue, we are less likely to allow distractions to remain in our life.
Every day we are presented with countless choices of how to spend our time, our energy, our effort, and our money. The wisest of us recognize we have the power to choose (more on that in a moment). But more than that, we know what we should choose, because we are guided by our life’s greatest mission.
Unbusy people are adamant about saying no to things that do not align with their mission.
Of course, sometimes the choices are obvious (I was never good at hockey, woodworking, or automobile mechanics, for example). But the hardest work is done in the trenches.
Staying on mission is about learning to say no to the urgent requests, the popular requests, and the countless opportunities in front of us each day—even good things that we could do. This becomes easier to do, the more resolved we become about our purpose in life.
What is your purpose? What goals do you have for your life? On what mission do you desire to live? And what plan have you developed to help you get there?
Pursue those with your heart and your life. And learn to say no to all the countless opportunities that will distract you from it.
Unbusy people know they have choice in life.
One of the most life-changing discoveries you can make in the pursuit of an unbusy life is the reality that busyness is a decision we make. We are never forced into a lifestyle of busyness.
We control our days. Our hours and our schedules are determined by us.
Greg McKeown, in his book Essentialism, says it this way: “No one can take away your right to choose. You can’t even give it away if you want. You can only forget that you have the power to decide.”
Now, this reality that we always have a choice in life doesn’t mean that there aren’t some external demands that may be placed on our lives. Anybody who has parented a young child knows this to be the case.
But in almost every case, when you get down to it, it is a decision that we made to put ourselves in that situation. You may have demands on your time from a boss, but your choice to stay in that job is yours. A newborn baby may require your time for a period of time, but what pursuit in life is more significant than raising your child?
You are not a victim and you are not a martyr. You need to show up in your life. In fact, you are the only one who can. You always have a choice. Unbusy people understand this and walk in that reality.
Unbusy people say no to almost everything.
Unbusy people know they can achieve more by doing less. Seneca wrote, “Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things.”
Warren Buffett is credited as saying it this way: “The difference between successful people and very successful people is that very successful people say ‘no’ to almost everything.”
Now, your definition of very successful may be different than Warren Buffett’s, but the truth remains the same. If you desire to be successful in your most valued pursuits, you need to say no to the less important pursuits that distract you from them.
Recognize the inherent value in the word no. Learning to say no to less important commitments opens your life to pursue the most important.
Overcome your fear of saying no by reminding yourself, What my family, friends, and world need most is the best version of me that I can possibly be, accomplishing the most good with the one life I’ve been given.
Unbusy people don’t get distracted by unfulfilling pursuits.
You can never accumulate enough of the things that do not lead to fulfillment.
If, by definition, a pursuit can never satisfy our soul and longing for meaning and happiness, it is a pursuit with no end—it will always demand more time and energy. No matter how passionately we pursue it, we are left empty at the end of the day.
I fear too many of our lives resemble this interaction. We search for happiness, fulfillment, and meaning in the wrong places. We have searched for happiness in a number of society’s greatest offerings and have found most of them lacking—or fleeting.
We have searched for happiness in a bigger paycheck… only to discover we immediately desired an even bigger one.
We have searched for happiness in a job promotion or recognition… only to discover the accolades don’t last.
We have searched for happiness in bigger homes… only to discover they are accompanied by burdensome mortgage payments.
We have searched for happiness in fancier cars… only to discover they get scratches and dings just like the others.
We have searched for happiness in alcohol and drugs and sex… only to discover the pleasure has disappeared by morning.
We have searched for happiness in large savings accounts… only to discover money can’t solve all our problems.
When a pursuit does not provide lasting fulfillment, we have two choices:
First, we can chase after it harder and harder, hoping it will eventually satisfy. Or second, we can reject that pursuit altogether.
Choose the latter.
The sooner we recognize these pursuits will never fully satisfy, the easier it is to unbusy our lives.
Surely, lasting happiness and fulfillment can be found somewhere. There is something deep inside telling us that pursuing happiness is not an entirely futile endeavor. We just need to start looking in the right places.
And the sooner we recognize that the pursuits above will never fully satisfy, the easier it is to unbusy our lives.
Unbusy people value the significance of rest.
One of the reasons many of us keep busy schedules is we fail to recognize the value of rest. Rest is essential to our bodies, our minds, and our souls.
Consider the benefits that rest offers: a healthier body, improved life/work balance, less stress, deeper relationships, better opportunity to evaluate life’s direction, refreshed outlook, even increased productivity.
Yet, despite all the proven benefits, intentionally setting aside regular time for rest is a practice that has become undervalued and underappreciated in today’s culture. We have become overworked, overstressed, and exhausted.
Yet setting aside one day each week for rest remains a practice that fewer and fewer people practice regularly (never mind the idea of taking a two-week vacation).
Overlooking the importance of rest is certainly not unique to our modern society. But our culture has made it increasingly difficult to take rest without specific intentionality.
Rest is not laziness. It is essential for our bodies and spirit. See it as such and embrace it regularly.
Take time for lunch. Find space in your morning to sit quietly before starting your day. Invest in solitude, meditation, or prayer. Find opportunity for breaks at work in between projects. Begin right away cultivating little moments of space and margin in your otherwise busy day.
I work hard to keep an entire day of rest as an important part of my life and weekly routine. But it is an upward battle that requires relentless intentionality—we live in a culture that has far too often underappreciated its value.
Schedule rest on your calendar. Then guard it at all costs.
The Miracle of Margin
If we are wise, we will take our lives seriously. We will seek to develop our talents and skills and grow in our abilities and potential to be our best.
We will realize, however, that this does not occur in a life that is burdened by an over-filled, cluttered, busy schedule.
As unbusy people, we will create margin in life by removing inessential pursuits. In so doing, we will live focused on the things that matter most.