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The Cult of Being Busy

How we are reinforcing the very burnout we’re striving to escape.

Being busy isn’t a badge of honor—at least, it shouldn’t be. But we can’t help ourselves when someone asks, “How are you?”

It’s an earnest question—benign and even kind. But what is concerning is less the question and more the American programmed response to it.

Nine times out of ten, we reply:

“I’m busy, but good.”

Busy but good

In the US, being busy has become a good thing. The last few generations have become productivity workhorses, welding productivity with value so that now they are one and the same.

“Oh, you’re busy?” We think, “You must be very important.”

No one thinks, “It’s a shame you are so busy.” We don’t consider how unfortunate it is that you don’t have time for yourself, for hobbies, or to relax with your family. No one sees your anxiety as abnormal or your chronic exhaustion as unhealthy. “It’s just part of life,” we tell each other.

We deal with it. We don’t question it. Meanwhile, we overschedule ourselves, work more than 40 hours a week, enroll our children in more activities, and sleep less and less every night.

We don’t want to be the ones to admit that we’re drowning under the pressures that society has put on us.

We feel like we’re failing, exhausted, and cynical. We can’t admit that we’ve lost meaning in our lives. We’ve seen others break under the pressure, hearing people around them respond with disdain, “They’re a mess…” they say. “They can’t keep their shit together.”

No one wants to be a mess. We want to be accepted. We want to be happy.

So, instead of taking a step back, being vulnerable with each other, and challenging the new norms of constant burnout, we resort to the American way. We pull up our bootstraps, put on a strained smile, and respond: “I’m busy but good!”

The obsession with perfection

Our culture is obsessed with perfectionism, and it’s out of control. We receive conscious and subconscious expectations from all the external sources we’re plugged into.

On any given day, we may feel subject to the following:

  • Be in excellent physical shape

  • Have a successful career

  • Have a well-designed home

  • Keep your home so clean it could be photographed for a catalog at any time

  • Be an expert Gentle-Parent

  • Have kids that don’t misbehave or act out

  • Have an ideal marriage

  • Cook and eat healthy all the time

  • Be top-performing in your job

  • Have top-performing kids

  • Involve kids in multiple activities and camps

  • Advance in your career quickly

  • Meditate daily

  • Go to therapy

  • Intermittent Fast

  • Cold plunge daily at 5 am

  • Do it all without flinching

… The list goes on.

Every time we give accolades to others who achieve these, we are negating the impacts on mental health, and we give the system more power.

What would it look like if instead we congratulated people on:

  • Having clear boundaries around work/life balance

  • Prioritizing leisure time with family/friends and self.

  • Having kids that had mostly played in unscheduled free time

  • Being content in their jobs/careers with where they are

  • Having a home designed to resemble their unique tastes instead of a Pottery Barn magazine

  • Taking the time to prepare healthy meals

  • Loving and showing their bodies as they are without shame

  • Exercising for the love of movement versus only to look a certain way

  • Confiding in others about the things they are struggling with

  • Asking for help

  • Responding to “How are you?” with authenticity and honesty

Keeping up with those Joneses

Some take pride in disrupting the status quo, and others desperately want to be it.

We praise those who fit into the system and shun the ones who can no longer handle its weight. The more we clamor for the exact same resources, the more we lose our authentic selves.

Stop and ask yourself why you work so hard. Why do you need a higher salary? Could you live with less?

Recently, I was looking for a pair of headphones to use at the office because the ones I have are corded and have a very short cord at that. Every time I move, I inadvertently yank my laptop off my desk.

I went to to see what was available. I was shocked to find that Bluetooth headphones ranged from $19 to $500. What surprised me even more was that I could easily recognize the ones my colleagues had, which sold for nearly $400.

A whopping $400 for a pair of Bluetooth headphones! I looked down at my $12 corded pair attached to my laptop. I automatically ran through the mental back-and-forth that we all find ourselves caught in when deciding on something.

“Boy, it’d sure be nice to have a set without a cord.”
“But you don’t need them, these work perfectly find with a minor annoyance.”
“Yah, but those Bose ones…I bet they are super comfy and, it’s Bose. They clearly are high quality and they cut the white noise too.”
“You don’t need them, it’s a waste of money. You are barely saving as it is. Keep that money for an emergency.”“
But the Bose ones…they are so slick, and everyone in the office has them. Plus you work in tech…you can’t look like a ludite”

Many of us succumb to the voice that tells us we need more. Every time we do that, we lose connection with the one who knows we can be content with less.

With endless information within our reach, we ogle over the latest technology, newest fads, and trendiest clothing. Advertisers know it, too. Ads sell lifestyles and identities, not products.

Many believe that if we purchase the $300 Bose noise-canceling headphones, we’ll be better people. We’ll be more likable, more trendy, and thus more accepted. So, we do it. We put it on a credit card, using money we don’t yet have, and tell ourselves it’s worth it.

The irony is that in doing so, we then become the new Joneses. Now, someone else is looking at us and feeling the pressure to keep up.

It’s a cult.

The Remedy

The way out is to break your attraction to whatever brought you in. It’s like taking your blinders off.

As a way to analyze human behavior, motivation, and attraction, Carl Jung took Freud’s concept of libido and expanded it beyond the sexual realm. Jung felt that libido was greater psychic energy and the main driving force behind human motivation to satisfy psychological and physiological needs. He said that when there is one area that has excess libido, another area must then be lacking, as it should be balanced.

He also observed that once libido is lost to an object or an idea, our attraction to that object or idea is lost as well. Essentially, it is the attraction that gives the value. The object or idea alone holds no real value without it.

This is the core of how to flip the script on the culture of burnout.

It loses control over us if we stop being attracted to what leads to it.

  • If we stop buying things we can’t afford, we’ll enjoy having more money.

  • If we stop overscheduling ourselves, we’ll enjoy having more time.

  • If we seek out more leisure, we’ll invite more happiness.

  • If we value uniqueness, we’ll stop pursuing sameness.

  • If we stop reveling in how busy we are, we’ll begin to enjoy slowing down.

All of these are the remedy to a culture of burnout. The good news is they are all in our control.

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