16 Mar You Don’t Have To Be Busy To Be Good.
I Do Not Have To Be Busy.
I used to think I should be busy. That a full life, a diary packed with activity, was the best way to be.
In my twenties I hadn’t given any thought to my capacity. I didn’t think I was trying to do too much, I was only doing what I thought was necessary to make a life of meaning.
I didn’t say no. Ever.
As a freelance director if someone offered me a job, I took it. If I was asked to help out at church, I said yes. If someone needed me to step in, to bake a cake or offer a lift, if someone suggested something which might be a good use of my time, if someone asked for my help and it was physically possible, I figured out how to make it happen.
I didn’t want to be selfish or unambitious. Or to be seen that way.
And I didn’t want to miss out.
I wanted the career and the social life my friends without children looked like they were having.
I wanted the home and family time my friends who didn’t work looked like they were having.
I wanted it all.
I thought the biggest life was the best one.
But sat sobbing with my therapist, collapsing from years of over-functioning, it was clear something had to change. Quietening my life wasn’t just advisable, it was imperative. Without slowing down I couldn’t get well. I reassured myself with the thought that this was temporary. Once I was well again I would be engaging again with all I had previously tried to juggle.
As time went on though, and the process of recovery revealed itself to be not a few months but a life’s work, I realised this enforced slowing was not going to be a short-term thing. I was learning a new way to live, my life wouldn’t look like it had before.
It wasn’t easy, I hadn’t realised how much my worth was tied to my busyness. I didn’t want to let people down. I didn’t want to be seen as lazy or as someone who couldn’t pull their weight.
Also, FOMO is real.
I didn’t think I suffered from the Fear Of Missing Out, but that is easy to say when your life is packed full and you couldn’t squeeze anything else in if you tried. Not so easy to do when you are at home again, aware others are working and socialising without you.
To slow my life down, I had to re-think these ideas. If I had free time and space, did that mean I was worth less than someone who filled every minute of their week? Did it make me lazy or irrelevant?
The lie that my worth was determined by my activity clung to me. The idea was sticky. Hard to shake off.
Recovering meant thinking about my capacity: how much could I do and remain well?
In the last decade there has been plenty of trial and error, many moments when I have got it wrong, ended up in a heap and had to reassess. I have learnt the truth: my capacity is finite (and I hate to break it to you, so is yours). I have continued to make hard choices, to let people down and say no because I have no choice, this is what it means to be well.
Also this is not a once-and-done situation. We live in a world making constant demands, where the idea of not being busy goes against the grain of everything we see and hear. If you stop being deliberate about having a slower life it is all too easy to feel the relentless pull, and slip back to over-functioning. We must be intentional about it.
But is not all bad news. In fact the opposite. As I have slowed down and made space I have realised the truth:
If I do not have to be busy I get to rest.
Rest does not come naturally, we have lived here too long.
And rest is not the same as inactivity. In the midst of anxiety and depression I was an expert at inactivity, I could zone out and detach myself from the rest of the world without a problem. I would gaze into the middle distance or sit in front of the television barely aware of the programme I was watching. But this was not rest, this was escaping.
True rest involves being present and allowing yourself to unwind, relax and enjoy the moment.
True rest replenishes.
True rest brings joy and fulfilment.
True rest realigns you with your priorities.
True rest restores relationships and heals your body.
True rest brings clarity.
It is only from a place of rest, with enough margin in your life, you can discover who you really are, what you love, what restores you, and how much sleep you really need. It is only in the past few years (many years into recovery) with a developed practice of rest (because yes, this is also something you have to practice) I have found myself able to ask and begin to answer the question: what do I want?
How to practice resting:
Use your Imagination
Can you imagine what it would be like to not be busy all the time?
Can you imagine a life where you are not lurching from one thing to another, where you don’t end every day aware of all you didn’t manage to complete? Can you imagine a life where you prioritised free time and left enough margin to do the things you loved?
What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Basic but essential.
I realised early on that if I did not schedule my rest along with my work, it would not happen. And I am not just talking about the rest ‘activities’, the meals out and trips to the cinema (important as they are). I have learnt I also have to schedule time for doing nothing, time for idling, for mooching, for going with the flow, for having a bath or a night in front of the television in my pyjamas. If I do not schedule this, it does not happen. Okay so I might not write ‘REST’ in my diary (although not a bad idea) but I know from looking at a week whether I have allowed enough time to relax and recover. I know how many nights out per week I can manage (less than you think) and how much alone or quiet time I need to balance out the socialising.
For some of us this comes naturally, we know how much down-time we need and are vigilant to protect it. For many others it is something we have to learn especially if you have lived for many years with an unhealthy idea of your capacity, or of what your capacity should be.
3. Be practical.
Guard your down-time and make rules about it. Turn your phone off, leave your computer closed and email unanswered. Don’t tidy the house or do the laundry. Fill the time with things that replenish you. Walk. Talk. Eat. Sleep. Read. Play games. Go for a swim.
Be warned – at first this will feel almost impossible, we are so conditioned to always be contactable, to never be completely ‘off’, it can feel destabilising and scary, but it is worth it. Gradually it will feel less strange, you will feel less fidgety, you will find you can rest.
This essay is taken from my new (and delightfully short) book, You Don’t Have To Do It All.
If you enjoyed this essay and found it helpful, you will probably enjoy the rest of the book!
You can buy it here. It costs £10 and is only available direct from me (because I figure Jeff Bezos already has enough money).
It is the money I make from selling my books which enables me to continue with the work I am sharing. If you already have a copy maybe you would consider buying one for a friend. If you know anyone burnt out, overwhelmed and struggling to keep their head above water – this book is for them.
Buy the book here.