Work-life balance: challenging busy-ness

Self-care is healthy, and necessary for helping others.  Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Jane gets very upset when she gets busy.  She has a sense of pressure, tremendous pressure.  She feels like a pressure cooker about to explode.  She becomes desperate for time alone, time away, time to chill.  At such times, she feels that her mental health is severely compromised, but also that nothing can be done.  She cannot pull herself away from her tasks, and yet she knows that her tasks are making her uncomfortable and ill.


Jane’s story is real, but it is not unique.  As a counsellor, I encounter variations on this experience many times.  Accompanying most people’s story of busy-ness, is the idea that we cannot escape.  Quite often there is a sense of obligation.  Sometimes it’s important to understand that the obligation is self-imposed.  Oh, we fuss and argue, that it could not be otherwise.  The worker argues that they would lose their job if they did not work in exactly the way they do.  The helper argues that there would be illness and death if they did not work the way they do.


Of course, the busy person is right.  Their arguments are strong.  But if we analyse in more depth, we might see something more subtle going on.  Why are the arguments so strong?  I would like to suggest that life challenges us with internal arguments all the time, often developed from parents, carers and influencers.  The arguments that are harder to answer, are the ones that end up dominating our working lives.  If we could only develop a better language to argue back with, then we might be able to break the busy-ness spiral.


The ‘busy ethic’ has several easy wins at its disposal.  This makes it extremely hard for us to disarm it.  In particular, busyness can always argue for:

  1. MORE TIME IS BETTER – Just one more meeting; just one more task.  It seems so innocent and unanswerable.  Each task in itself can be tiny; but soon one can find oneself overwhelmed by too many ‘tiny tasks’.
  2. DOING THINGS FOR OTHERS IS BETTER – It’s for other people.  Who am I to say no?  If you were brought up to think of others, then this seems unanswerable.  Each person helped seems so innocent, but eventually one can become overwhelmed by the sheer number of ‘selfless’ tasks to be done.
  3. LIFE IS EARNED – The cycle of work seems so evident – I have to work to get money; there is no money without work.  Therefore I must work more.
POSSIBLE CHALLENGES TO BUSY THINKINGI’m suggesting that, to balance busy thinking, we need to have counter-arguments at the ready.  Here are three sample arguments with which one can challenge the above common ‘busy ethic’ arguments.

  1. TIME LIMITS ARE HEALTHY – The incremental argument is flawed, because, unchecked, it can lead to overwhelm.  Cognitively, imposing a limit is an extremely effective way to balance life in a healthy way.  Just as calorie limits can keep weight healthy, so time limits can keep a person mentally healthy.  Work time needs balancing with rest time.
  2. SELF-CARE IS HEALTHY – The selflessness argument is flawed, because, unchecked, it can lead to exhaustion.  Just as a good ambulance driver keeps their ambulance in good working order, so a good helper keeps their own mind and body fresh and healthy.  Other-care needs balancing with self-care.
  3. LIFE IS BLESSED – There are many examples in nature of good things not being earned.  Rain falls on plants, whether or not they are virtuous.  Food arises for birds, whether or not they have done a working week.  The countryside is free.  Walking is free.  Many things are not attached to an economy.
RELO 20180125 Remindful logo transparent bgSUMMARY

If you find yourself getting unhappy because you are too busy, challenge your own assumptions.  Perhaps you are being persuaded, wrongly, that you must always do more, that it must always be for others, and that you must earn everything you have.  Perhaps is is time to remind yourself that:

  1. Time limits for work are healthy, and rest and play are good.
  2. Self-care is healthy, and necessary for helping others.
  3. Good things are free, and happiness does not need to be earned with work.