When You Can’t Be Busy All The Time Anymore

Are you addicted to being busy? Don’t know what to do now with shelter in place? I understand what you are feeling. I’ve been there.

Quarantine has made the best of us go stir-crazy at times. On one hand, we like that we have a lot more free time now. We get to watch those Netflix shows we’ve put off, try new workout routines, and catch up with old friends.

On the other hand, for those of us used to being so busy all the time, used to playing catch up on our own lives, we find ourselves unable to do the one thing us workaholics/extroverts love most — distract ourselves from our own thoughts.

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Google Calendar that looks a lot like mine used to

Without our calendars filled brim to brim with things to do and people to see, we have to be okay with sitting in our own thoughts. We tend to overthink and self-criticize with too much time on our hands. Why are we still not doing X, Y, and Z with all this time? Why are we feeling like the grind is so meaningless now? What’s wrong with me? Those questions and thoughts understandably can be very scary. The realization we can’t numb ourselves as we once could can be even scarier.

This is how I became not just okay but happy with my newfound freedom from busyness:

This was the most important step for me to take. It is like any addict realizing that something major needs to change in their life. The realization that I did not want to rely on being busy to be happy led to me wanting to change. Part of my motivation was that I knew this quarantine was indefinite so I wouldn’t be as busy for a while. Part of it was that I loved that I could make progress and improve myself even during the quarantine. The bulk of it was that I knew being able to deal with free time well would improve every part of my life. Whatever positive change I made would stay with me for the rest of my life.

The most important step is often followed by the most difficult. Busyness distracted me from more than my most negative thoughts and emotions, like guilt and regret; it distracted me from acknowledging them. So I wrote those thoughts that kept entering my mind all down. (A great alternative is to voice record yourself). It didn’t matter if it was 1 am or 1 pm. I let those thoughts flow into existence, and I let them go. Often, I spoke about my most vulnerable thoughts with my closest friends, which was important for acknowledging my emotions. I was no longer too busy to suppress them, and I actually liked that.

I know that there is so much to think about in the silence. However, I realized all thoughts are valid, but not all thoughts are true. What I mean by this is we will think certain things, but it does not mean we actually believe them or that they are core to who we are. What helped me was thinking purposefully. I thought about what I loved, what I believed in, and who I wanted to be. Not all thoughts and emotions are pleasant, but I became at peace with anything I was feeling. I focused very little on the past and future, both things out of my control, and encouraged myself to think about the present.

When I thought about what I wanted for myself in the present, I decided on two things: self-love and peace. At first it felt good to be hard on myself and honestly to wallow, because I wanted to motivate myself. I became very focused on what others were doing (oh wow this person started their own business during shelter in place!) and how uncertain my own life was (now what am I going to do over the summer?).

I have decided, like many others, the usual definition of productivity no longer applies and that we should all prioritize nothing more than our mental health. With this, do not be afraid to ask for help. Having people understand you and help you is a sign of strength, not weakness. Giving myself a break and talking to others helped me perform a lot better once I was back on the task. The trap people fall into is that they think the more they do, the more productive they are. To me, productivity is about prioritization and knowing when to take a break.

To prioritize taking care of myself, I tried to make choices that let me sit in my emotions and at the end of the day make me feel good. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that no one is more influential in your life than you are. You talk to yourself the most. No one understands what you need more than you.

The path to self-love is very individual. But I do know that paying attention to what I feel and not falling back into the pattern of distracting myself has only helped me. Distraction can be comforting and even relaxing, but it is not a long-term solution. Two of the things that really helped me truly relax on my own were spirituality and journaling. I have also heard meditation helps a lot of people. Smaller behaviors for me have been sunbathing, reading, working out to songs, and walking aimlessly.

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Look, how beautiful!

The only parts of my days in college spent outside were usually walking to somewhere. During these walks, my phone was always in my hand and being honest, I was almost always rushing (read: speed walking). I didn’t look up very often. I did not marvel at the sky, buildings, or anything. I was busy, after all. Now, I look closely at the clouds in the sky and the flowers my neighbors have planted on my daily walks. I have lived in my hometown all my life and maybe the scenery and routes I take don’t change but the things I notice and the thoughts I think do. I love the little routines I have now of making and drinking coffee and jamming out to hype songs while getting ready, damn well knowing I’m not going anywhere. I know it won’t always be like this, so I treasure these moments.

I know there is a lot of pressure to fill free time once again with new hobbies or tasks. But I found myself a lot happier just learning and simply doing what I felt like in that moment. Even if it’s not something “intellectual.” For me, it’s been anything from a new Netflix show or talking about the concept of friendship vs acquaintances with my friends on FaceTime to religion.

Retaining some sort of productivity has been good for me. That to me is different from busyness and how I was before. Productivity is a train going at a nice speed; busyness is a train barreling down the track just because it can’t stop. Similarly, I do not want to depend on that go-go-go mentality; I want to balance my well-being and still do what I want to do/go after what I want.

There is no failure in not being busy and no need to always be accomplishing things. Life can feel like it is always about the next thing. School then work then retirement. Prestige, promotions, and external validation. Our energy does not have to be centered around that. The more you grow and take space to sit in your thoughts and emotions, the more you will be not only okay but happy for whatever is to come.

Poetry book “Under Clouds and City Lights” publishing April 2021

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