When I lived in Korea, it shocked me how everyone perceived ‘busy‘ as a badge of honor. It meant you’re a productive member of your group and people can rely on your sacrifice. It meant you’re working hard and should be praised for it. I remember how I told my colleague once that everyone was so busy, and she said “Don’t worry, Maria. You are busy too!”.

I found it funny back then, but she was right.

I’m addicted to busy in a lot of ways. I often feel that I can’t take a break, or I’ll never be able to catch up with all the things on my neverending todo list. I feel like everything will fall apart if I step away, and everyone will find out what sort of fraud I am. I feel like if I don’t take care of some things, no one will, and disaster will ensue.

I told my team lead recently how the workload in a project I lead overwhelms me. These days it’s enough for one person to get sick, and we’re barely catching up. He listened to it all very gently, then said I should consider stepping away from the lead role, cause I’m on collision course with planet burnout.

It was a hard pill to swallow, but he was right too.

The way I dealt with this challenge was very unhealthy. It was like running around with an empty wheelbarrow, too busy to actually load it. I felt I was doing everyone a favour by working overtime and feeling personally responsible for every single problem. In fact, I became less capable of deep troubleshooting, supporting my fellow team members, or making strategic decisions that would solve the crisis at its core. Because of my desire to do more, I was actually doing less, but felt more tired in result.

What he said to me was a much needed wakeup call. I realised the things that I did weren’t working, and that I can’t repeat the same steps again and expect a different outcome. So I did the scariest thing I could do.

I took a break.

I’ve let the raging fires burn on their own, and spent an entire day catching up with all the important-but-not-that-urgent stuff. The kind of things that never openly ask for your time, but can leverage your efforts elsewhere if you let them.

I felt like I was letting my teammates down by leaving them alone in trenches. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. I finally had a chance to analyse why exactly we’re lagging behind, understand what we need to get back on track, and lay out a plan how to get there. I could chat with a mentor and ask her for advice. I could kick off the training of another colleague, which I’ve been putting off for a week. You thought the empty wheelbarrow was a hyperbole?

I thought I was too busy to do all of that. I was wrong.

Whenever I’m feeling too busy to take a break, it is precisely when I most need one.

Whenever I’m too busy to exercise, or meditate, or go for a walk, it’s the surest sign that I should just do it.

Whenever I feel that everything will fall apart if I step away, I should let it fall apart. If the only thing that holds the entire structure together is my enormous effort, it’s probably not a structure worth preserving.

Whenever I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall, I should take a step back, look around, and see if there’s a door nearby, even if my first instinct is to keep smashing harder.

The feeling of busyness can be quite overwhelming. But ultimately, busy is a choice.

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