Why Being Busy Isn’t Always a Good Thing

If you are like me and don't know how to stop overscheduling and adding to your neverending to-do list, why is it so hard to stop? Why is it so hard to feel satisfied with your day (or maybe even the past hour) if you don't feel like you have been productive in some way?

Last week, I attended a panel discussion on health and wellness organized by The Ace Class which stands for activate, cultivate, empower (If you haven't checked out their Toast series, you're missing out). One piece of advice that was brought up by Dr. Lisa Belanger was to remember to be kind to yourself when you don’t get something done by telling yourself “not yet” instead of “you failed”. It totally makes sense! Think about those days when you don’t make it to the gym. Maybe work got in the way. Maybe you didn’t feel well. Maybe you just chose a different activity. Whatever the reason, telling yourself you failed isn’t motivating.


Anyways, all of the advice from the lovely ladies at this event got my wheels turning. First of all, I struggle with what I call "intermittent burnout". I will completely exhaust myself and hit a wall, do what I need to do to recover, and then continue doing the same thing without changing my mindset or my routine. Every time I miss an email, can’t focus, don’t have time to write a blog post or skip the gym, I feel like I’ve failed. When these things happen it's because I'm either out of time or out of energy (sometimes to the point of feeling unwell). That’s when I asked myself why I constantly overcommit my time, and what impact that has on my physical and mental health, as well as my path towards my long-term goals. Here are some of the questions I asked myself, and I think you should do the same. 

Why are you always the first to offer your time, even when it doesn’t make sense?

From side jobs to volunteer gigs, I’ve lost count of the “projects” I’ve taken on, often blurring the lines between work and volunteering. When someone needs help or there is work to be done, I’m almost always the first to raise my hand. Maybe it’s outside of my scope of work. Maybe it’s super inconvenient. Maybe I truly don't have time. So why do I still say yes? It’s usually because I don’t want to be the reason someone else fails, I don’t want to miss out on an opportunity, and I don’t want anyone to think I don’t work hard.

I challenge you to take a step back, sit on your hands, and wait just a little bit longer before you volunteer for something. Think about how you will feel once you say yes. If it's instant anxiety or disappointment, you should probably keep your hand down. If you still want to be supportive, offer an alternative suggestion to that problem at hand that you are happy with, or that doesn't require your support.

Do you want to be busy? Or do you want to be productive?

It can be so easy to think that checking things off a forever growing to-do list is helping you learn, feel accomplished, and get closer to meeting your goals. You think that if you work really really hard, good things are bound to happen. But what if you forget to selectively choose the things that you commit (or overcommit) your time to? Just because you are getting stuff done doesn’t mean you're doing the right things. To has to be meaningful to you. Although a lot of great things have come out of saying yes more, it can be a very slippery slope. When I hear people talk about setting intentions for the day, the week, etc. I now see why it's so important. If you don't give yourself little reminders of what you want out of this life, it's easy to fall into a trap of what is asked of you.

Do you want lots to do? Or do you want to do the right things?

If you find that you are struggling to meet expectations or feel like you are always doing the bare minimum, you’re either doing too much or you’re doing the wrong things. Working towards your goals doesn’t always literally mean you have to work 24/7. So let’s change that dialogue. I think there is something to be said about the things you can do to work on yourself that don’t involve following someone else’s timelines or burning yourself out. When your to-do list is lengthy and people are depending on you, it's easy to forget what's on "the big to-do list" aka the goals and dreams you have for your life. 

Why do you volunteer your time, even when it feels like a chore?

Volunteering is a great way to dabble in several different things both personally and professionally. You can explore new passions and the things you have always loved because you are quite literally choosing to give your time. One of my favourite volunteer roles was with the Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society (AARCS). After volunteering with them for three years, I started working for a small business which was my first full-time job after university. I was so busy that I started to feel like I was just getting by and I started to lose sight of why I was volunteering in the first place, and I wasn’t able to enjoy the feeling of giving back. Believe it or not, volunteering isn't supposed to feel like a chore and you can (and should) say no when you can't enjoy it. 

When I was between jobs this winter, I instantly panicked knowing that I would have time to myself - a true sign of someone who is used to being busy. I wanted to focus on my professional development during my break so I started volunteering for two different organizations and took on a short-term contract. Every time I do this, I tell myself that it’s okay because I'm being challenged, connecting with new people, and learning new things. Although all of that is true, I have also learned that having too much on your plate makes it very difficult to learn anything.

Why can't you be accountable to yourself, the same way you are accountable to others? 

I have tons of goals for myself, but those always seem to be the ones to slip first. For example, I struggle to see my blog as real legitimate work because I find it easier to be accountable to other people than myself. I know that I started on this path of building a busy life because I wanted to learn new things, work towards my goals, and feel fulfilled - and I have to make the rules that will allow me to do those things. Now when I find myself busting my ass for someone else even though I don’t really know why I'm doing it, I know it’s time to be accountable to myself and find something that gives back... to me.

How should you choose where to volunteer your free time?

The way I see it now, it’s better to fill your time with less and be able to give an energetic 120% instead of a very tired, ass dragging 100%. Also, remember that every time you commit to something you are choosing to give your time. Volunteering is often selfless, hard to balance, and occasionally (or always) chaotic. That means if one week, one month or one year down the road you find yourself giving way more than you get, you can and should walk away. Sometimes it can feel impossible to walk away knowing that someone else really, truly depends on every hour that you give - but trust me, they can survive without you. It’s not worth the stress. I also challenge you to volunteer to do something for yourself, and stick to it. 

How can you feel more productive at work, while being mindful of your time?

If you always find yourself putting up your hand for extra tasks or working long hours because you want to do a good job - that’s great! But it is something to keep a close eye on by remembering the big picture of why you do what you do. Ask yourself, what’s the worst case scenario is if you don’t answer that email until Monday or if you ask for an extension. It sounds simple, but remembering the big picture absolute worst case scenario is sometimes what your brain needs to be able to shut off and remember that it can most likely wait... keeping in mind that I work in marketing ;). Needing more time doesn’t make you a failure and a very small percentage of people would do what you are doing outside of working hours. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care, but always remember that there is usually room for flexibility if you just look for it or ask. If you find that you are just so busy and still not feeling productive, it might be time to evaluate whether you are working on things that matter, or just doing a lot.

Remember that working towards your goals doesn’t have to feel like work - and being busy doesn’t guarantee success.