Of all the distractions that keep us from living a fulfilled life, the most prevalent in our world today may be busyness.
Possessions and property and the desire for wealth all come to mind, but the greatest distraction of them all may be busyness—it seems to transcend every social class.
I was struck recently by a quote from Søren Kierkegaard concerning the danger of living a fast-paced, hectic lifestyle. Over 150 years ago, he said it like this:
Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”
I have found his words to be true in my own life. Being busy does not result in fulfillment and meaning. Being busy may mean more things are getting done… but they are often the wrong things.
A busy life is an unexamined life. And an unexamined life is rarely worth living.
I learned this lesson many years ago when I was forced to slow down in college because of a unique course assignment. We were required to spend 1 hour per week, alone in a room with our thoughts. There was to be no music, no books, no meditation guides, no technology, no thought aids whatsoever. Instead, we were to sit quietly and allow our minds to focus wherever our hearts took us.
The practice was difficult at first, but eventually turned out to be one of the most significant assignments and practices of my entire college life.
The hour of solitude did not result in papers being written, homework being turned in, books being read, tests being studied for, or to-do items being checked off. It didn’t result in the usual busywork being completed. Quite the contrary, it resulted in deep life reflection about the trajectory of my life, the person I was becoming, and whether I even wanted that to be true of me.
It is why, I think, when I first read Kierkegaard’s quote, it resonated so deeply within me. Busyness may keep us rushing from project to project, place to place, or appointment to appointment, but what really are we accomplishing with these hectic schedules?
Rarely does busyness result in the most important work of our lives being completed. It most often just distracts us from it.
I experienced a very humbling moment yesterday. I ran into a friend—a good friend who is battling cancer. And it occurred to me, as soon as I saw him, that I had not spoken with him for over two weeks. Not a phone call, not a text, not a single inquiry into his health. My friend is facing the greatest struggle of his life… and I didn’t even think to check in with him.
Reasons quickly surfaced in my head to excuse my lack of thoughtfulness. I would have checked in, but “I’ve been traveling out of town most of the past week,” “I’m launching this really big project next month,” “I’ve been so busy with so-and-so and this-and-that, it’s understandable that my friend never crossed my mind.”
This, you see, is what busyness does to us. It prevents us from remaining focused on the most important work that we need to do.
Busyness crowds out self-reflection. It keeps our mind and feet always scurrying from one thing to another and never allows us to sit quietly in our thoughts to determine if the next opportunity is even something we should be engaging in.
As Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
A busy life is an unexamined life. And an unexamined life is rarely worth living. It may be full, but it is rarely fulfilling.
It should be noted, of course, that this does not mean we will not go through busy seasons of life. Every new parent knows there are busy seasons in life. Every college student knows there are busy seasons during a semester. And almost every worker in the world knows there are heightened periods of busyness as deadlines come and go.
I am not saying there is no space for busy seasons. But a busy season is different from a busy life. If you find yourself racing about season after season after season, constantly chasing who-knows-what, you may want to ask yourself if you are finding enough time for meditation and solitude and self-reflection.
In this regard, some have even begun equating busyness with laziness. It is not laziness as we typically define the term, but it can still be a form of it. If our rushing about from one activity to another distracts us from self-reflection, or even worse, the important work that we should be taking up with our lives, it may indeed be a form of laziness—at the very least, it produces the same result.
I am challenged by the words of Søren Kierkegaard. His thoughts on how busyness may be preventing us from important work ring true—especially in our modern culture.
How many regrets have I heard from others who spent too much time working to be present with their family? How many times have I turned the other way from helping another (or simply calling a friend) because of the commitments on my calendar? And how many days have I let pass without focused self-reflection?
In each case, it may be asked, where does busyness get us? What exactly does it allow us to get done? And how might we be using it as a shield from the deeper work required of us?
Somehow, grieving the lost of my father (he took his life away), followed by an intricate family disputes and old abuse stories that came out to it, then the death of my 13 years old dog I had since a puppy. I also lost my 2 jobs recently. I’ve entered for the x times the land of depression and anxiety to a paralyzing level. I follow you for many years and always feel inspired. Now facing it, my train of thoughts keep measuring my value to what I do, what I should be doing, hoping back on the work job, any job, to run away from the dark hollow days. I’ve took action, meditate (yoga nidra), walks out, consulted with shrinks, started a TMS therapy, feel grateful for my lifelong companion and yet stuck in the old pattern of doing/ being. How does one fulfill it’s day meaningfully and on the road back to health in this emptiness. I enjoyed reading all your comments, thank you, and the article of course. Love to all.
Your words are heartbreaking. You are “heard” and “seen.” Always believe you are valued by those that care about and love you. You are enough.
Maria Pinto says
These are all great comments & I love the piece by T.S. Elliot, very powerful! Part of the excess busyness I think is the false illusion of false importance, & also the fear of sitting quiet with ones own thoughts. To some people it is a luxury they feel they cannot afford, but life is short & passing them by.
I don’t exactly agree. The title of this article for me is more of just a twist to saying “don’t waste time doing things that are not important.” or “always find time for yourself,” or “live more.” But of course “busyness is laziness” sounds more interesting. Maybe you also want to put something like “Lazy is the new busy,” or “selfishness is the new normal.” It almost wants to suggest that busy people are stupid, and those who squander time are living the full life.
Sandra Richardson says
I am an atheist, so obviously I do not believe in a “God”. I do believe, however, that prayer is a powerful tool and can be extremely helpful to many. It works, in my opinion, not because there is someone (“God”) listening or answering but because it forces people to sit quietly, listen to their gut, and think through whatever difficulties they are facing and come up with answers on how to deal with them.
I do this by going for a long walk with my dog in the woods. I’m alone with my thoughts, and it is there that I come up with most of my best ideas/solutions for the everyday problems I face.
Whatever works for you to stop the busyness and be alone with your thoughts, be it prayer, meditation, a walk in the woods, will have a significant impact on the quality of your life.
Love this post!
Bernie Stevenson says
Spot on! I’m an atheist too & totally agree with this view. Yoga, meditation & being out in nature are all very useful for problem solving, relaxation & peace of mind.
My zen is reading…..just finding a nice quiet corner with a snack, drink and no noise. Then I lose myself in a book that I really want to read….I could do this for thw whole day.
Matt W. says
I’m 39 and I’m quitting my job to focus on my mental, physical, and spiritual health; along with reconnecting with my three boys and wife. We’re willing to make whatever sacrifices we need to get out of the rat race and focus on the things that are most important!
Kevin Greenwood says
I did this as well!
I had cancer in 2015, but it took me until 2017 to quit my “dream” job at age 41. Two boys and my wife and a life worth living were more important.
And this year finally had the courage to blog about it!
Hi Joshua! I am at a good point in my life regarding this article. I am not overly busy and I truly reflect on what’s important. I need the opposite… a push to do more and procrastinate less. I would love to see a future blog on motivation and action ?
Pat Dunham says
I read your great article today. And it is reminding me to look at my projects. I keep thinking that I have things to finish and accomplish and then I will slow down, but haven’t figured out how yet. I have a goal to make enough money to be completely debt free which I am very close to right now. And that will be behind me. I want to finish my book and get it published on a topic helpful to lots of people who want to live in a smaller space. I am always multitasking which I have heard is unproductive. When I should be just sitting totally concentrating on the grandchild I am with, I think I should be doing something else at the same time so I am getting more done. So I think I am okay just being there while maybe the grandchild is watching a show or on their tablet, while I am on my computer trying to get my book done or something similar. I will keep reading all your geat content and everyone’s comments because here I am busying myself with all of this, while never finishing everything I want to and at age 80, I know I don’t have much time left.
Mary Wiggins says
Pat, please turn off the computer and the grandchild’s tablet and go take walk, get an ice cream – it will be more valuable than finishing whatever is on the computer. Or go fishing…. the child will be more blessed than anyone that reads your book.
The best way to get away from it all is take those you love, or a friend hiking. No distractions. Make it a weekly or more.
Kimberly Abrams says
Give Socrates some credit for writing your headline for you!!
“The unexamined life is not worth living.” – Socrates
Nancy in WA says
This post puts words to something that I have felt deep in my spirit for quite a few years now—that I am living a lazy life, in spite of my busyness and workaholic tendencies. Now I know that is true (that I am lazy) and how to correct it. Simple, yes; but not easy! Thank you, Joshua for this post!
I have been aware of a good book on this subject for awhile, but have not wanted to read it. Now I will. “I Was Busy, Now I’m Not,” by Joseph Peck. Dr. Peck is one of the most productive people I know! Also, I was recently reminded of another book that is helpful on this subject called “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry,” by John Mark Comer. I hope the spelling of his last name is correct.
Strong powerful words-
What a huge impact busyness has on our emotional, spiritual, & physical health- and all for what endpoint?
Matt Riedemann says
Thank you for your words of wisdom. Powerful thoughts.
Connection with people who matter are the prize when we slow down and reach out. Busyness robs us of this wonderful gift. Thank you Joshua for the reminder!
Excellent post to start off this new Decade Joshua.many thanks
A great take on busyness. What personal value is there for an individual living an unexamined life!? As I grow older, it is increasingly my intention to live a more – intentional life – and having started a daily meditation practice last year, it seems to me that the pause in the day helps me to gain perspective which helps to clear some of the unnecessary busyness. Thank you Joshua
Thanks so much for this article – it was timely and a good reminder, particularly your point of ‘A busy life is an unexamined life.’.
Michele Genevieve Jarvis says
Thank you Joshua. I have been bullet journaling with intention this year and the self reflection component has been life changing.
For lent I will be giving up busyness.
Interesting paradox and I suppose I agree-though I haven’t sat still in a room for an hour considering it…?. If I point my life at doing what the Jones’ do I fill my agenda with tasks aimed at unconsidered goals and eventually it becomes easier to knock some of those tasks off the list rather than determine they are not worth my doing them, and that in its own way is lazy isn’t it.
The paradox itself reminds me a little of John Piper’s description of the battle for joy…
Everyday may we consider and pursue what really matters.
Lovely reminder and also a remarkably long email exposing the virtues of simplifying and not being busy. hahaha
For many years now I’ve said “BUSY” is a 4-letter word. Busyness and the speed of the life we live will be our downfall. Constant distraction from what is really important at the core of our being will not end well.
I am a person who likes to take action and make it happen, but being involved with cultures like the Bengalis (Far East Asia) who love to just be together and enjoy each other has changed my mindset of a doer to a be-er. I’m learning to reflect and enjoy my family, my friends and even writing letters to people and enjoying that gift of music that was born into me. I’m challenged by your writing to reflect more and let that reflection come out in creative ways- not necessarily productive ways. Thanks for challenging us to see that doing too much, actually can be lazy, not productive.
Lynda Rhoden says
Fear is what keeps most of us in the clutch of “busyness”. Fear of what we’ll find during that time of reflection. I’ll honestly admit that I’m one of those people.
Even though I’m retired, the urge to be productive is an addiction. That’s what has made us useful, a great employee, parent, or whatever has been deemed as desirable and good. Our society has enslaved us from the cradle with the notion that if you stop producing, you’re basically useless and no longer admired or respected.
So it’s fear of what I’ll find if I stop to really think that keeps me running. Nor do I think I’m the only one.
Lynda, you are not the only one and have hit the nail on the head for me!
This “urge to be productive” has been my addiction for too long now. As I move through my journey, I am becoming better at letting go, slowing down and coming into peaceful reflection. Productivity is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Thank you for putting words to this issue for me.
Linda Faye says
Joshua, this is outstanding and promising because it is something anyone can do no matter who they are or where they live or their current circumstance.
It actually gives us hope for a better, more meaningful future for ourselves and those we care about. I will be sharing this with my friends and family.
If this exercise were to be implemented from Pre-School through High School (age appropriate amounts of time, of course), our lives would be positively better for it.
Add this to my strong belief that Communication Skills (age appropriate) should be required in these same grade levels and I believe our entire world would experience an awakening which would result in less wars, less divorce, but especially more fulfilling, happier lives!
Thank you so much for doing what you do and may your day be abundantly blessed!
You certainly do bless all of us!
Needed this reminder this week. Thank you.
Needed to hear this today! Thanks!
That is why a day of rest, a day dedicated to God, is commanded to us. Sunday used to be a non-working day.
I was reflecting on this same truth Sunday in prayer after working all day. I’m 100% guilty of staying constantly busy, all along knowing I’m not doing what I should be. I have been searching for the answer as to what I should truly be spending my time on for years now. I feel in my heart for it to be far less about “I”.
Barbara Drewry says
Joshua – Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Your post is timely and wonderful, and I appreciate it so much. God bless you – Barbara Drewry :-)PTL
Betty Barkley says
A friend once said to me, “I am a human being, not a human doing.”
So simple. Thanks for the article.
This might just be the best thing I’ve read in quite a while. Thank you so much for your thoughtful and inspiring post!
I’m printing out this quote. I used to be proud of being busy and multitasking. Since I started to follow your blog i’ve learned to slow down and focus on one task at a time. It sounds silly, but now, after I’ve cleaned up all the dishes from supper I feel more at peace with a task well done, fully done and not half done because I was focused on 4 other tasks at the same time.
I needed to read this right at this moment as i was going to rush down my breakfast and rush to the store…. wow thank you so much ….. this has actually brought me to tears❤️
Lois Hillman says
Very timely message. Being a Christian I am tuning into the Lenten season and one of the behaviors I must fast from is my title as the Queen of “busyness”. On Sunday (first Sunday of Lent) I am talking about the importance of creating space for personal introspection. You touched on this in several ways and I appreciate the confirmation. Keep writing. I read every word.
Alejandro Clausse says
I recommend the book “Leisure, the basis of culture” by the philosopher Josef Pieper. In this connection, it is interesting that in English, business is related to being busy, whereas in other languages, like Spanish, the equivalent term is the negation of leisure: negocio = no ocio, no leisure.
Yes! Yes! Yes! We read that book in college (thanks to a Great Books liberal arts curriculum), and Pieper’s work was a key source for my college senior thesis, which, among other things, was about how disconnected from nature and each other our society has become, and proposed some solutions to it. Reading the comments on this page is like reliving the process of writing my thesis.
Patricia Downs says
Your writing gets my attention all the way to the end. Can’t say the same for the rest of the blogosphere. Thanks for an insightful post.
NANCY DE FLON says
This is a great challenge to me. When by 10 a.m. I’m reviewing the morning and ticking off how many things I’ve already got done, I know I have a problem. I’m going to print out this blog post and keep it to hand for constant rereading. Thank you!
Great post Joshua, so true! So grateful to be reminded, thank you!
❤️ I’m calling my Dad right now.
I have been working along a path of solitude, quiet, silence in my life but the suggestion of setting aside an hour to do nothing but think really resonates deep inside me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
Szilvia Virag says
Yes… it’s fine to be busy, but if it’s so busy that there’s no time or energy for self reflection and for the things that matter most, then it’s time to get serious about doing some self reflection and changing some of our priorities.
Wonderfullly powerful. Great work Mr. Becker!
Thank you so much for writing this blog and sharing your valuable insights with us. I’d like to know more about your exercise in College. For how long did you sit in a room for 1 hour/week. The course of a whole semester? Did you take notes for yourself? Or was paper and pencil also not allowed?
Was there an exchange in class or with your professors about what happened during the hour(s) or how the practice affected you?
Thank you for reading this. I hope it’s interesting for other readers as well. Best wishes, jc
Thanks for commenting as I had these same questions. I hope Joshua takes the time to reply to your comment as I would like to learn more. It sounds like just the sort of practice I could use in my life right now.
Barbara Drewry says
Yes! I would also like to know more! Thank you!!
I agree, JC. I would love more details about Joshua’s college exercise. Good stuff, as always.
Del Cusay says
I had a deep reflection upon reading this. Some ‘busyness’ moment of my life is part of my job for a living. However, day by day and year after year it resulted to stress, anxiety and burnout. There is less fulfillment and feeling empty. Now, I am living on my desired pace and I experience being truly alive.
Joanna Schoff says
I will not join the rat race. I will not.
Chasing an unbusy life and happier for it.
I have busy moments but i search and seek quiet.
Thank you for the guidance, Joshua.
“What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?” Quite a bit, actually. Being “busy” may not bring you to living your best life, or accomplishing your highest goals, but surely stating that busyness is laziness *is* reductionist fallacy!
What speaks to me more clearly is T. S. Eliot’s piece:
The Eagle soars in the summit of Heaven,
The Hunter with his dogs pursues his circuit.
O perpetual revolution of configured stars,
O perpetual recurrence of determined seasons,
O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying!
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Brings knowledge of speach, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
all our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to God.
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the dust.
– T. S. Eliot, from “Choruses from “The Rock””
Sharon Joplin says
Love this! So true. At the beginning of this year I decided to do just this, spend more time pondering and waiting. I am finding myself more productive and at peace.
Title itself a life-changer. You are so right. Not lazy in all activity but toward that which I actually should be accomplishing. Whoops. ?
Joseph Washington says
This is such a blessing. Thank you so much!!!