By Rabbi Yaakov Barr, MSc, PGDip, BABCP Accreditation
Today, everyone is busy. I had a chat with a friend recently that went something like this:
“How is everything going?” my friend asked me.
“Very busy,” I replied. “How about you?”
“Yeah, me too — so, so busy,” he responded with a sigh.
Does this kind of conversation sound familiar? It seems everyone is busy… being busy.
With machines and technology doing so much of our work, you might have thought that in the twenty-first century we would have much more time on our hands. Indeed, in 1930, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that with the advance of technology, by the turn of the century people would be working a maximum of three hours per day. How wrong he was!
Instead, we are running around in a frantic world choking on more stress, pressure and busyness than ever before. Faster and faster we go in pursuit of jamming more into the day with endless tasks to complete, deadlines to meet and responsibilities to take care of. We have no choice but to multitask in our constant battle to conquer the to-do lists of modern life. We hardly have time to draw breath before being busy with the next assignment.
It is no surprise then that this relentless busyness is having a huge impact on our emotional health.
Some time ago, a very wealthy businessman was referred to me. He was already taking medication for anxiety and panic attacks. He told me about his punishing schedule, waking up early in the morning and arriving at work before anyone else. All this in addition to regular business trips and involvement in communal matters, as well as trying to fit in time for his family.
I did not need a psychology degree to work out why he was in the state he was in.
Our bodies are not built to withstand constant busyness, and if we impose this on ourselves long term we set ourselves up for the consequences of anxiety, depression, headaches, insomnia, and heart attacks, chas v’shalom. In addition, when we are too busy, we don’t have the time to exercise enough, eat nutritious food, or get enough sleep or relaxation.
The impact of busyness is felt not only by the busy people themselves; their nearest and dearest suffer too.
I like to relate this well-known story about an 8-year-old whom we will call Eli Cohen.
Eli was a good boy who did well in school, academically and socially. Many times, Eli came home eager to share news of his day with his father, but Mr. Cohen was just too busy, either in meetings with clients or on the phone with his business partners. Whenever Eli would start speaking to his father, Mr. Cohen would gesture to Eli to be quiet as he was busy with an “important matter.” Usually, by the time Eli realized that his father had put down the phone, Mr. Cohen was either dialing the number for the next call or running out to his evening shiur. This is how it went, day after day after day.
One early evening, Mr. Cohen got a call. He picked up and asked who was calling. The voice at the other end sounded familiar. It was Eli.
“Hi, Daddy,” Eli said. Mr. Cohen was in no mood for silliness as he had lots to do, and he told Eli irritably to get off the phone.
But Eli persisted. “Daddy,” he said, “I know you are very busy, but I have saved up enough money to book an appointment with you so that you can spend some time with me and listen to my important things, like you do with your clients.”
A tear rolled down Mr. Cohen’s face as it dawned on him how misguided he had become.
Whenever I tell this story, I wonder how many Elis are out there. How many children would love to spend quality time with their parents, but busyness destroys these special opportunities?
Why Are We So Busy?
The first question to ask is why we are so busy. The simple answer is that there is a lot to be busy with. There’s parnassah to make, children and families to look after, and our religious obligations to fulfill. However, previous generations also had these commitments, and their pace of life was far slower.
I think being busy has become a status symbol, a badge of honor. Our society puts a high value on being busy, and we are conditioned to believe that being busy is synonymous with being good, worthy and successful.
Some time ago, I attended a conference of medical experts. I recognized one of the participants from when we studied in university together and ambled over to say hello. Before I had a chance to ask him how he was, he started telling me how busy he was and how he wished he would have more time. I hadn’t even opened my mouth, let alone asked him about how busy he was — yet he felt the need to inform me.
Our technologically fast-paced world has also conditioned us to be content only when we are keeping up this frenetic pace. We have become used to getting everything instantly, so we become irritated if we have to wait and frustrated if we are doing nothing. When there is a void, a space or a gap in our day, we feel compelled to be “doing” something; the alternative seems strange and unfamiliar.
I was recently on a train and noticed how train journeys have changed over time. It used to be that one would see people resting, reading, chatting and enjoying their own company. Now, with the advent of Wi-Fi, it has become business, phones, laptops and more business, if there is still time before the train reaches its destination.
We fool ourselves into believing that we don’t have enough time. But perhaps we have gotten it wrong. Time is not the problem; it’s the habits we have developed that are the problem.
What to Do?
So how can we become un-busy, if that’s a word?
The first thing we can do is stop the glorification of being busy. Being busy does not need to define us. So, repeat after me: “It’s okay to not be busy.” Resting is vital to us all, and if various relaxing activities are worked into the daily schedule, then we can start correcting the “busy” habit.
I know of one man who, every week, no matter what, takes a day off to spend quality time with his family and himself. We all need to rethink our priorities. We need to focus on what’s really important to us, and how we can ensure that we are not pulled away by our busyness. Often, it’s having the ability to say no. If someone asks us to add to our already cluttered schedule yet another activity, we often have an internal battle of not really wanting to do it, yet finding it hard to say no. By being more assertive and having firmer boundaries on our time limits, we can free ourselves up from the endless tasks.
We need to acknowledge that advances in technology have further imprisoned us in the trap of busyness. With the constant barrage of phone calls, emails, texts, WhatsApps and tweets, every spare minute is now accounted for.
What can we do? The best solutions are the simplest ones. A team of well-paid European researchers set out to discover how we can overcome our attachment to mobile phones. After a few years, they published their findings. They revealed that if we learn to keep our phones on silent and to sometimes even switch them off, we can free ourselves from their grip.
I know what you are thinking — that even you could have figured that out. Maybe you are even thinking that if research is so easy and you could do with the extra money, perhaps you should become a researcher. If you are, I’m surprised at you. Don’t you think you are busy enough?
Rabbi Yaakov Barr is an accredited psychotherapist and clinical supervisor living in London. He received semichah from Harav Moshe Sternbuch, shlita, and has an MSc in cognitive behavioral therapy. He treats adults and adolescents, and writes and speaks on emotional health awareness.