Maintaining productivity and avoiding exhaustion
In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Assistant Professors Silvia Bellezza and Neeru Paharia, and Associate Professor Anat Keinan wrote that busyness in American culture had become a status symbol. In a series of studies, their investigation revealed that:
…the positive inferences of status in response to busyness and lack of leisure time are driven by the perceptions that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (e.g., competence and ambition) and is scarce and in demand in the job market.
Long before being busy became a cultural obsession and a status symbol, I have been busy. I have always kept up an exhaustive schedule. In high school, I played tennis, I played volleyball, I volunteered, and I worked at my local library. In college, I had two jobs. When I joined corporate America, I worked non-stop. Then a few years ago, I moved to Budapest, and my life slowed down, and I allowed myself to breathe.
That dramatic change of pace was an adjustment for me. For the first few months, I walked around with a constant feeling that I had forgotten to do something. I would run through a mental checklist of all the things I thought I had forgotten to do — didn’t I need to go to the post office, call my landlord to complain about something, and fight with the cable company? I was so unused to adhering to regular working hours that I felt somewhat bereft.
Instead of settling into this new normal, I began to pack my calendar with after-work activities and socialized excessively. In mid-2017, while working a full-time schedule, I decided to pursue a double Masters in Finance and Technology Management. After finishing school, I decided to learn French. At the beginning of 2020, I added writing for Medium as one of my after-work activities.
A few weeks into the new year, after returning from a business trip suffering from paranoia that I had somehow contracted the coronavirus, I was back in my doctor’s office — tired and in tears. Again. I have lost count of the number of times I have been to my doctor’s office over the last few years. My diagnosis is always the same (tonsillitis), and it is always stress-induced. After diagnosis and treatment, my doctor always encourages me to reduce my workload, sleep more, and try to relax. After years of not heeding her advice, I finally reached a breaking point. I was exhausted, and my body could no longer keep up with the schedule I had set for myself.
This is not a humblebrag. This is a realization that led to an intervention.
When I was pursuing my nursing license, I had a psychology class. I don’t remember what topic we were studying, but I remember asking the professor if I would slow down once I got older. She said I would not. People who keep a busy schedule when they are young will most likely maintain a busy schedule as they get older, she explained. I desperately hoped that it wouldn’t be the case for me; the mere thought exhausted me.
Ten years later, it feels like my life has only gotten busier, and I have finally realized that my schedule is no longer sustainable. It was time to change.
Before embarking on this change, I needed to get to the root of the problem. I had two main goals:
I needed to understand what was driving me to maintain such a busy and exhausting schedule.
I wanted to understand the physiological impact my busyness was having on my body. Was my body addicted to stress?
Why do I maintain such an exhausting schedule?
I am determined, and I’ve always attributed my busyness with work and school to an innate desire to achieve. Growing up, I was taught that standing still or taking a break was antithetical to productivity and achievement, while busyness was analogous to ambition and success.
My mother personified busyness; she never took a break. During her mandatory two-week vacation, she got a side job. I, on the other hand, took vacations. This I knew how to do, but I never unplugged, never stopped working. I now know that this was the crux of my problem. I was emulating the busyness and the ‘sleep when you are dead’ attitude I had seen my entire life. It was a fallacious premise that I have since unlearned, but for a long time, I equated busyness with productivity, and it gave me a false sense of achievement.
What I have learned to do better is to ensure that whatever new endeavors I take on, that I make the space for them in my life. This means that I have to periodically reassess, prioritize, and ultimately let go of certain activities that no longer serve a purpose in my life.
Another challenge was learning how to enjoy quiet periods in my life, whether it meant going home after work, leisurely reading a book, writing an article for Medium, or just sitting at home watching Netflix for a few hours before bed. It is an adjustment getting used to the prospect of not being busy, but once you have adjusted, it feels empowering to take back control of your calendar and to give yourself that valuable gift of time.
Am I addicted to stress?
I always thought I performed better under pressure. Throughout college and grad school, I followed a “procrastinate/stress/achieve” cycle, and over the years, stress and being busy became instrumental to the narrative of my life. I might have done well on those exams and those papers, but all I remember was the unbelievable level of stress I put myself through to pull off the grades that I got. I often wondered what would have happened if I had given myself more time to write those papers, what if I was well-prepared and well-rested for those exams? At some point, I realized that telling myself that I worked better under pressure was another fallacy and a crutch. I did not have any evidence to support this theory — it was merely all I knew.
A consequence of this “procrastinate/stress/achieve” cycle was that my body became addicted to stress. This cycle was pervasive in my life and insidious to my health. It is a difficult cycle to break. However, what I found was that taking small steps toward breaking the cycle can make a big difference. For example, preparing for an important presentation a few days before it is due instead of the day before can have a significant and positive impact on your stress levels and your peace of mind. This sounds obvious — a logical and straightforward solution; however, it is something I was never able to manage before. No matter how hard I would try, I was never able to sit down and prepare for anything without having the due date looming ominously over my head. That looming due date was so stress-inducing that it somehow motivated me to produce my best work? Looking back on this thought process — it makes absolutely no sense!
It was a fallacious premise that I have since unlearned, but for a long time, I equated busyness with productivity, and it gave me a false sense of achievement.
I didn’t come to this realization overnight; it took a while for me to come to terms with my flawed perception of busyness and to be mindful of the impact it was having on my body. I have always wanted to improve my physical and mental health, but I never took the time to examine the underlying causes and the consequences my busyness was having on my life. It was years in the making, but I had finally reached a breaking point where I had to decide to do better because the alternate way of being was no longer sustainable.
While I have since acknowledged my motives for maintaining a demanding schedule and the impact it has had on my health, I think back to all the questions I would often receive about the schedule I kept and the responses I gave. I am no longer addressing these particular questions, however, in the past, I have responded in a misguided effort to reassure people that my busyness was a legitimate consequence of my lifestyle and that it was out of my control. Below are some of the questions I would typically receive.
Do I keep myself busy because I am single and have no kids?
Do I keep myself busy because I am lonely?
Am I trying to prove myself?
Is something missing from my life?
I know that the absence of a partner and kids didn’t account for the busy schedule I kept. I heard the implication in the question, and I found it reductive. I got this particular question from those who were genuinely curious about my ability to maintain such a busy schedule and from those who generally thought that my busyness was a cover-up for a sad, childless and husbandless existence. I still chuckle at the thought of that question.
Now for the question of busying myself because I am lonely. While I have felt lonely at times, I am not lonely — far from it. I have always maintained meaningful friendships and relationships in my life, and combined with my family, these relationships have been my primary source of companionship.
Another question I was often asked, “Are you trying to prove something?” At some point, I have also asked myself this question, and I realized that I was indeed trying to prove something earlier in my career, but I have since changed my environment and no longer feel the need to prove to anyone that I am worthy or that I belong.
Finally, I also got asked if something was missing in my life, and my response remains the same. Yes, many things are missing, and I imagine that until I have reached the very top of Maslow’s pyramid and become self-actualized, I will always be striving to achieve. For now, I am making room for the things I enjoy, learning to love those that are good for me, and getting rid of the ones that no longer serve me.
So how did I get over the thrill of being busy?
I stopped being busy. It was that simple. I took a hard and honest look at my calendar, and I made the conscious decision to prioritize and purge. You see, being busy is a thrill; it is a state that makes us feel seen and competent, and it’s addictive.
I convinced myself that being busy was the only choice I had to get things done. Cortisol — the stress hormone produced by the body — is highly addictive, and at sustained levels, it’s dangerous for your health. I had to wean myself off it, and I began by standing still. For weeks, I did nothing. I went to work and came home. I had the occasional night out, but for the most part, I cooked or ordered in. I wrote. I watched trashy TV, and I went to bed. I woke up at a decent hour and got to work on time. Of course, I was bored and restless, but I eventually adjusted, and my self-imposed intervention worked.
I am no longer perpetually busy, and most importantly, I don’t want to be busy anymore. I am no longer chasing the thrill of being busy. Today, I value sleep and productivity. I take productive breaks by unplugging, and I try to enjoy the things that I have meaningfully achieved. It is an adjustment, and I am still processing the change. I am still tweaking, trying to find that perfect balance of work, social, and personal activities that satisfy my soul and nurture my body.