How to break the busy cycle

Because of the pressure to be busy, some of us have forgotten how to simply "be." But downtime is important for your well-being. Instead of automatically doing more, take a step back and examine why you're so busy. Then embrace the value of doing nothing.

By Charlene M. Martin Lillie

You're busy, right? And if you're not, what's your problem? In today's ramped-up world, it's become a badge of honor to be busy. When you return to work on Monday morning, it can sometimes feel like a competition to see who did the most over the weekend and talk about how little time you had to rest. If you say you weren't busy, you might be judged as lazy or incompetent.

Because of this pressure to be busy, some of us have forgotten how to simply "be." Downtime, however, is vitally important for your physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Taking time to rest and relax, with no plans and no particular goals, can help reduce stress and bring a sense of calm and control. When you allow yourself to pause, you refresh your body and recharge your mind, which gives you more energy.

4 questions to ask that will help break the busy cycle

Instead of asking yourself to do more, ask these four questions to help yourself slow down.

1. Ask yourself why you're so busy.

There are probably a lot of reasons. Does it make you feel important? (You might think, "No one else can do this but me!") Does it give you a sense of pride to attend your children's activities? Do you help others because it feels good to help and to feel needed? Perhaps staying busy distracts you from your thoughts and feelings, such as painful memories or fear of the unknown. Or perhaps you just enjoy being busy — it fills your bucket.

Sometimes your schedule is in your control, and sometimes it's not. However, thoughts and behaviors often are automatic. By becoming more aware of why you do what you do, you empower yourself to decide if this is really how you want to spend your time.

2. Ask yourself what downtime means to you.

Downtime means something a bit different for all of us. For you, it could be taking a nap, spending time in nature, listening to music or reading to your child. Think about what feeds your soul, energizes you or brings a sense of calm, even if only for a while. Perhaps downtime is simply time that you set aside just for you.

Another form of downtime is to practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your surroundings, using all of your senses. If you're outdoors on a spring day, smell the crisp air, feel the breeze blowing, really see the flowers and trees, notice the new green grass sprouting through the brown, and hear the birds chirping in the distance. When you pay attention in this way, it anchors you to the present moment, so you're not focused on your worries or your to-do list.

3. Ask yourself to say no.

This is easier for some people than for others. Is there one thing you would rather not do this week that you can take off your list without significant consequences? If so, imagine what it would feel like to say no to this task and then do it. Be careful not to recommit to something else. Do something for yourself instead.

4. Ask yourself what means the most to you.

List all of your tasks for the week and put them into two columns. In one, list the things you must do, such as going to work, taking your kids to school or paying bills. In the other column, write down the things that you are choosing to do, such as going out to dinner with friends or shopping for new clothes.

For each task, write a bit about why you do it. Expand your thinking beyond, "Because I have to" or "Because I like to shop for clothes." Look for a deeper meaning. For example, "I go to work because I like helping people. I take my son to basketball practice because he loves it and it makes him happy, which in turn makes me happy. I shop for clothes because I feel good about myself and have more confidence when I am wearing something new."

If you have trouble finding the meaning in something you're doing and you can choose not to do it, consider taking it off your list. Then take that time to replenish your reserves, so you'll have more resilience for the times when you can't avoid being too busy.


  1. Take five minutes and just breathe. Deep breathing through your abdomen eases anxiety and increases alertness.
  2. Take a nap. Keep it to 20 to 30 minutes. If a nap isn't possible, go to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier.
  3. Take a 15-minute break to be outdoors and enjoy the beauty of nature.
Jan. 05, 2017 See more In-depth

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