B is for Busyness
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
“I wanted to figure out why I was so busy, but I couldn't find the time to do it.” Todd Stocker
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” Socrates
I have always lived a busy life; when I was a child my routine was filled with after school activities and then when I became more independent at university I continued in the same way often burning the candle at both ends until the first Summer holidays when my body said that enough was enough. Rather than go inter-railing and do a thousand and one other activities that I had planned that Summer, I spent the holidays mostly in bed sleeping or reading having succumbed to Glandular Fever. This reminds me of the analogy about someone using a car and being too busy to put in fuel until they have no choice when they run out of fuel and can’t go anywhere.
There is a difference between being busy and being productive. Being busy can often mean filling our time running around and feeling over-stretched yet achieving little despite our best intentions . Being productive is more concerned with kairos; how we use time and having something to show for our efforts. I’m sure that many of us have found ourselves looking back over our day feeling exhausted but having the impression that although we have been extremely busy and have tried to accomplish a lot, we are still not feeling particularly productive and have little to show for our efforts.
“We have become a nation of thoughtless rushers, intent on doing before thinking, and hoping what we do magically works out. If it doesn’t, we rush to do something else, something also not well thought-out, and then hope for more magic.” Len Holman
Busyness is like a double- edged sword. According to 2016 research (Sara Festini & Denise Park), people who are busy end up with more brain power, but the stress experienced might be detrimental to their physical health. When it’s an unproductive kind of busyness, it can be destructive to our health and well-being, but the ‘right kind’ of busyness can maintain our brain’s health by creating new connections and neural pathways and even increasing our brain power as we age.
“Results revealed that greater busyness was associated with better processing speed, working memory, episodic memory, reasoning, and crystallized knowledge. Hierarchical regressions also showed that, after controlling for age and education, busyness accounted for significant additional variance in all cognitive constructs—especially episodic memory. Finally, an interaction between age and busyness was not present while predicting cognitive performance, suggesting that busyness was similarly beneficial in adults aged 50–89. Although correlational, these data demonstrate that living a busy lifestyle is associated with better cognition.” (See first link below for full article)
What is the ‘right type’ of busyness? To keep our brain agile, we have to continuously focus on exercising parts of it that we don’t use so often. In so doing we develop a growth mindset. Tasks like learning how to speak a new language, playing a new musical instrument, learning new IT skills, forces your brain to work in a way it is not used to. When we feel mentally and physically exhausted after working on something new, we know that it is having a beneficial effect. (‘No pain no gain’!) There is many a time I literally say, “My brain hurts!” when trying to understand a new concept or do something new!
As medicine and technology advance enabling people to live longer, improvements in cognitive performance to keep our brain healthy and functioning efficiently are equally as important as looking after our physical bodies to help ward off neurological disorders like dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Staying active is a good thing, but like everything we need to find a balance and be the “right kind of busy”. Chronic busyness can very easily lead to stress which in turn can contribute to heart disease, cancer etc. When being busy starts to spiral out of control, you lose your connection with others and it negatively impacts your sleep. If your stress levels are high enough it can also be passed on to future generations.
To avoid a surge of the stress chemical ‘cortisol’ that can temporarily shut down our digestive and immune systems keeping our bodies in constant “fight-or-flight” mode, it is important to deliberately create moments of “down-time” into our lives so we can consistently perform at maximum potential.
“I asked myself, “Who would I be if I weren’t busy? What would be left of my life and me after I removed excess stuff from my home and allowed my day to have unscheduled open spaces?” Lisa J Shultz (Lighter Living: Declutter. Organize. Simplify)
When we don’t give our brains “down-time” not only does it not have the space to assimilate and accommodate new information, but it also doesn’t have the space to be creative or process and gain new perspectives on our environment, ourselves and others.
The brain has two distinct networks for different types of attention:
The CEN (Central Executive Network) directs our thoughts, behaviour, emotions etc and is employed when we are focused on actually planning or doing tasks.
The second network, DMN (Default Mode Network) is responsible for our musings, lateral thinking and general free-wandering mind.
We become stressed when we over-engage in the CEN and become stuck in an endless cycle of doing, solving and planning mode because we lose our ability for insight and creativity.
Again it is a question of balance, we still need the CEN to assess our creative ideas and insights but we need the DMN first to access them.
“One day I sat in the woods, which I found to be stunningly different than walking ‘through’ the woods. And in the sitting, the woods jumped to life with a spirited activity that I had scarcely ever seen or known to exist. And as I sat there turning this way and that in order to draw it all in, I thought that it was not the woods coming alive. Rather, it was me coming to a halt.” Graig D Lounsbrough
So what have I learnt? I think, that what I have taken away from this is that it is important to have the right type of busyness in order to maintain a healthy brain and help protect your brain from future deterioration, but balance is key and rather than seek to find new ways to become more efficient and do more, we need to conscientiously programme in moments of down-time to allow us the balance to just be.
“As kids, our stock answer to most every question was nothing. What did you do at school today? Nothing. What's new? Nothing. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our nothing for busy.” Amy Krouse Rosenthal (Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life)
Some questions to think about/or discuss below:
Are you too busy?
Is the busyness you experience the ‘right type’ or is it really not that productive and detrimental to your health and the relationships around you?
Do you create enough spaces in your daily routine to just ‘be’?
Do you invest enough time and energy in nurturing yourself?
What new skills have you learnt recently?
What new skills do you need to start making time for to have a beneficial effect on your brain?
Is your life balanced between the right type of busyness and downtime?
If you want to explore this subject further, here are a few links to get you started:
“However, if I were to let my life be taken over by what is urgent, I might very well never get around to what is essential. It's so easy to spend your whole time being preoccupied with urgent matters and never starting to live, really live.”
Henri J M Nouwen