Want to Know How to Be Less Stressed? The Answer Isn’t What You Think

Yes, you can be happy and relaxed with a busy life. Here’s how.
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Yes, you can be happy and relaxed with a busy life. Here’s how.

Last year, I quit a well-paying career in web design to chase my dreams of becoming a writer. It was tough on both my bank account and my calendar. Convenient restaurant dinners became home-cooked meals. I was no longer simply doing the work; I was building and managing a business as well. Now, I’m busier than ever while earning far less. But, finally, I feel relaxed and happy.

Being busy gets a bad rap these days. It all started four years ago with The ‘Busy’ Trap, the 2012 New York Times opinion piece that thrust the war on busyness into mainstream conversation. Since then, busy people have been painted time and again as frenetic show-offs, staving off the existential crisis awaiting them on the day they decide to take a break.

If this experience has taught me anything, it’s that there’s more to ‘being busy’ than having a packed schedule. What’s more, setting goals to ‘be less busy’ potentially cuts us off from leading meaningful and satisfying lives.

What happens to a busybody?

There’s no sugar-coating it—the stress of being busy can make you sick. Prolonged stress has been linked to depression, fatigue, insomnia, peptic ulcers, skin rashes, and illness. Longer term, stress may place us at risk of developing heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and osteoporosis. Ouch.

Most of us learn the hard way how stress-related disorders can sneak up on us—usually, when we’re too busy to notice. After a while, we get used to the discomforts amidst our day-to-day routines. We consider them normal. I've held down stressful, busy jobs, striving to accomplish too much in too short a time, with too few resources—a story many share. For years, I gritted my teeth through depression and anxiety, irritability and arguments, and spent my hard-earned dollars on doctors, physiotherapists, and counselors.

But as I dove into my new career as a writer, suddenly juggling a to-do list bigger than ever, I noticed many of my ‘normal’ physical and psychological discomforts begin to disappear. My persistent neck and shoulder pain subsided. I fell sick less often and experienced fewer bouts of breathlessness (a symptom of anxiety). I stopped clenching my jaw and grinding my teeth at night (anxiety is thought to contribute to TMJ disorder). I slept better and woke up refreshed, despite the onslaught of new deadlines and pressures.

I began to suspect my busy-ness wasn’t the reason I’d been so stressed out and unwell.

There’s science to suggest that being busy isn’t so bad after all.

In 2015, research by the Swiss National Science Foundation found that gainfully employed adults who also engaged in volunteer work reported greater feelings of satisfaction and work-life balance, despite being busier with both a day and a side job. This aligns with the results of another study, which showed keeping busy with good deeds can help reduce the effects of social anxiety. Additionally, research into the physiological effects of boredom have found that being idle and under-challenged can be just as stressful as being overworked.

Over the years, I had experimented with ‘being less busy,’ imposing bans on going out or picking up new projects, even if I was excited about them. The break was nice at first, but I always ended up fidgety, only to get busy again by choice.

Though there had been times I burnt myself out on doing too much, doing less, as a blanket rule, simply wasn’t fun or fulfilling.

Be busy with purpose.

In 2010, a study published in the Psychological Science journal concluded that keeping a person busy keeps them happy. This plays on the idea that we experience a dual desire for busyness and purpose. In the early years of human evolution, conserving energy was vital to our survival; expending it for no good reason could lead to our demise.

“With modern means of production, however,” note the researchers, “most people today no longer expend much energy on basic survival needs, so they have excessive energy, which they like to release through action. Yet the long-formed tendency to conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending effort without purpose.”

In short, we like to keep busy with things that matter. So the real question isn’t whether being busy is bad for us. It's whether it would be so terrible if every item on our to-do list was meaningful.

My decision to switch careers forced me to look at what I really wanted, and what I was willing to sacrifice for it. I realized my new profession would dominate my hours. I’d be busy in a whole new way.

But I finally knew what I wanted and, armed with this fresh sense of purpose, I felt unfazed by the prospect of a full schedule. It wasn’t long before I figured out which activities would lead to the most important outcomes. My goals no longer conflicted with each other; everything I did served a common purpose. I lost that once-familiar sense of being frazzled and rushed.

How to stress less when you’re busier than ever

For me, finding satisfaction came from looking at tasks taking up space in my life and asking what each of it meant to me. Elements of Essentialism and KonMari came into play, as I asked myself whether an activity was meaningful and whether the result brought me joy.

This simple hack to my perspective didn’t take much effort, but required practice before it came naturally. And it didn’t work overnight. I started asking myself these questions long before deciding to change careers, and my plans looked very different then.

Contrary to how you feel when you know something in your life needs to change, you don’t always need to know where you'll end up before you begin the process of figuring out what to do. It may not be wise to quit your job, but you can start taking stock of what motivates you at any time. Give yourself the space you need to discover and prepare for what the answer might be.

There is no quick fix for an unhappily busy life.

We find our way into this situation gradually through habit, so it’s not unreasonable to expect that’s how we’ll find our way out. When busyness takes hold, the philosophical search for meaning may seem like a useless distraction, counter-productive to getting things done.

But it was only by giving myself the opportunity to think about it—even if just for five minutes each day—that I stumbled upon the small tweaks in my routine and behavior that gradually got me to a better place.

By weighing up each task against your unique sense of purpose and passion, you dip beneath the surface of your frantic schedule and understand your reasons for staying so busy. Sometimes you’ll find portions of your life you can simply let go of. Sometimes, you’ll find responsibilities and obligations that only need to be adjusted, along with satisfying life choices you just forgot you made.

Tim Kreider, author of that New York Times piece, concludes by saying, “Life’s too short to be busy.” I disagree. Filling your days with activities that bring joy to you and others actually sounds pretty good.

Photo Credit: Regina Leah Photography