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On Being Busy

If you want more free time for yourself and those you love, you may have to give up on “being busy.”

Most people are shocked when I tell them that a human life span of 83 years is only 1000 months.  But once the fright of this new perspective wears off, it’s easy to go back to frittering away our hours as though time was in limitless supply and only money was going to run out.

Twice in my career I’ve worked for large corporations where I found myself seduced by the commonly held belief that money and status are precious and free time is worthless.  Perhaps this is a delusion necessary to any organization which asks us to give up our allotted time in return for a paycheck.  Implicit in this trade is the notion that being incredibly busy confers value and importance.

I can think of no better metric of success than not being busy, that is in having free choice over how I spend my time.  I used to believe that wealth granted us the freedom to spend time pursuing our dreams.   Yet, while in theory this should be true, it seems that the more money we make, the more valuable our time becomes and the less we come to think of free time (i.e. unpaid time) as success.  In fact, for many, free time has come to signify failure.   This is why many people actively resist taking time off and are proud that they never vacation for more than 5 consecutive workdays.   Often, of course, this is brought on by a fear of losing relevance at work, and by an addiction to being busy, as a placebo for feeling truly valued.

Focusing on a scarcity of money often feels less terrifying than facing up to the much more real scarcity of time, so we’ll often forgo the pursuits which have in the past brought us the most fulfillment in order to devote more time and energy to what will bring us more “financial security.”

It is a paradox that the less time we’re spending doing whatever it is we love, the more money it will cost us to do it.  I love sailing, but trying to squeeze this passion into my free time would end up costing a small fortune.  If, on the other hand, I got a job crewing a yacht, I’d spend all my time on the high seas, with someone else picking up the tab.

Being busy can also impact our home lives.  When we we’re busy, we’re not available; we’re not present.  Sometimes our busyness can conceal a fear of being intimate with our partner or our children.  In many marriages, one or both partners see the extra money they are earning as more valuable to their sense of self-worth than the free time which they currently don’t have.  Yet, when intimacy suffers, it is often because of unfulfilled expectations around time.  Before you committed to spend a lifetime together, you and your partner most probably made some financial plans, but did you ever design your alliance around how each of you wanted to prioritise your time?

Looking coldly at how we spend our hours inevitably means confronting the limits of our 1000 months, yet I feel incredibly lucky to have once came so close to dying that doctors let my dog sleep over with me in the hospital.  For me, the gain from realizing that my life span is finite was enormous. This awareness jolted me to follow my calling to train as a counselor and coach.  If I could, I would offer everyone the chance of having a near-death experience, or fatal prognosis from which you would, of course, recover in time to re-evaluate your choices, especially in relation to how you spend your time.

It’s hard to have this perspective when we’re caught up in the busyness of life, but very few of us end up at 1000 months wishing we’d earned more money, achieved greater recognition or spent more time in the office.  Our greatest regret is nearly always that we didn’t slow down sooner to fulfill more purpose in our creativity and wellbeing or connect more profoundly with those we love.

During the busiest times of my life “busy” became an addiction that was hard to break.  I lost touch with my friends, my parents and my partner for months at a time.  To the outside world, I may have appeared reassuringly busy, but inside I knew I was off track.  Now that I spend my time doing what I love, my days are still full but they are no longer frenetic.  The first step for me was just being aware that I didn’t have to be busy.

Remy Blumenfeld is a creative life coach living in London. He empowers leaders to play the game of life with purpose, grace and ease. Before training as coach, he launched a TV Production company which created dozens of ground breaking, TV shows.

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