How to Avoid the Busyness Trap

For many people, being busy is a badge of honor. It allows them to feel important and valuable based on how in demand their time becomes and how much they are doing. However, other people use staying busy as a way to numb themselves to the things they are feeling and the uncomfortable parts of their lives.

When you’re busy, you don’t have time to think about the things you are afraid to face, whether that is a failing relationship, discomfort with boredom, fears surrounding the passage of time, or uncertainty over your self-worth. Busyness becomes a safe escape from discomfort, but that safety may be gained at the expense of your relationships, sleep schedule, and anxiety level.

How do you know if your busyness is an avoidance technique?

Does your busyness feel like running away from something or toward something? If you feel like you’re running toward something, you’re probably not staying busy to avoid something else. Busyness can be a good thing if you are working toward a goal or project with a clear end date and as long as you are aware of how busyness is impacting the other areas of your life.

Do you feel anxious when faced with empty time? If you’re determined to fill every possible hour on your schedule with another task, you might be using busyness as an avoidance technique.

Are you exhausted? This goes beyond just being tired at the end of the day. Are you mentally and emotionally drained? Is your first thought of the day always “I need a vacation,” but you never take any steps to actually give yourself a vacation or break?

How to Avoid the Busyness Trap

If this all sounds too familiar or hits too close to home, don’t worry! Here are five ways you can confront your use of busyness to avoid discomfort:

Recognize your feelings. The first step is to learn to recognize what you are feeling when you’re busy. Are you constantly stressed out, anxious, and exhausted or are you exhilarated, motivated, and tired only as a result of the work you’ve done? If the latter, great! If the former, it might be time to take a step back and clear out a few hours in your schedule to address the issue you’ve been avoiding by keeping yourself busy.

Sit with your feelings. Once you’ve figured out what you’re feeling, take some time to sit with the emotion without judging it. This is much easier to say than to do. You’ll want to move onto the next task on your schedule or to distract yourself from your uncomfortable feeling with social media or a TV show. Resist that urge! Sitting with your emotions gives you a chance to acknowledge what it is you are feeling, as well as a chance to face it head on. Avoiding something gives it power over us, and gives it a chance to continue to grow into something bigger that is even scarier to face. Acknowledging and facing what you’ve been avoiding puts the power back in your hands.

Recognize when you are over scheduling yourself. When was the last time you talked with your friends about something not related to work? When was the last time you spent an evening engaging in your favorite hobby? If you can’t remember, you might be overscheduling yourself. Other signs of being overscheduled can be feelings of frustration, anxiety, and exhaustion. Are you waking up tired each morning? Is traffic annoying you more than usual? Take a look at your calendar and see when you last had an unscheduled hour to yourself.

Schedule free time. Scheduling in free time may seem counter-intuitive, but it may also be the only way you can trick yourself into taking a break. Block off some time during your week (exactly how much is up to you- one hour a week might be your starting point) and don’t let yourself fill it with anything. Use the hour to disconnect from your responsibilities and do a personal check in on your emotions and energy level. Odds are this one hour will help you come back to the rest of your schedule feeling refreshed and centered.

Set a small or fun “non-productive” goal. If that empty spot in your schedule terrifies you, go ahead and fill it in with something “non-productive.” This can look different for everyone. Maybe you schedule a phone call with a friend with the goal of not talking about anything work related for that hour, or you schedule in time to read a book for fun. The goal of this “non-productive” hour is to break your cycle of busyness and to give yourself a chance to breathe and exist without judging yourself for not working on your To Do list.

How Counseling Can Help

Recognizing feelings. The ability to recognize your emotions is the first step towards being comfortable with not being busy. If you’re struggling with figuring out what you’re feeling in a knot of emotions, a counselor can help you to work through untangling that knot and identifying the different strings. It can be difficult to identify your feelings if it isn’t something you’ve ever done before. Counselors not only can serve as sounding boards as you learn to identify your emotions, but may be able to help you find the exact right words for what you are feeling.

Embracing discomfort. There’s a reason you are avoiding whatever it is you’re avoiding: It’s uncomfortable to face! Very few people actively go towards something causing them discomfort. If you aren’t ready to manage that discomfort on your own (or aren’t even sure how to manage it at all!), a counselor can help you find ways to address it, sit with it, and work through it. They also are trained to help you work through the fears that may come up as you work on clearing your schedule of busyness.

Mindfulness practices. If the goal of busyness is to avoid spending time with your uncomfortable thoughts, mindfulness may be what you need. When practiced correctly, mindfulness allows you to sit with your feelings and thoughts without judging them. As you get better at practicing mindfulness, you will be able to acknowledge discomfort, recognize the feelings or thoughts behind that discomfort, and allow yourself to get through the discomfort without letting it cloud your mind or send you into a busyness spiral. While there are many apps and YouTube videos on mindfulness available, it is highly recommended you have a counselor lead you through the steps of mindfulness until you get the hang of it.

On the surface, staying constantly busy may seem like a good thing. It can be a numbing behavior, however, and it is important to consider your motivations for staying busy. If you’re using it as a way to avoid discomfort in your life, it might be time to come see a counselor and work through whatever you’ve been avoiding.

About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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