Do you wear ‘busy’ like a badge of honour? Feel guilty for taking the time to switch off and do something just for you – worrying it might be seen as self-indulgent, or lazy even?
If the answer is yes, you’re not alone. But why do some of us feel like this? Why is busy so often used as a marker for success or self-worth? And why do we find it so difficult to shift down a gear and look after number 1?
“Being busy can be a positive”, explains Dr Mark Winwood, director of psychological services at AXA PPP healthcare. “It allows us to get things done, to maintain our momentum and stay motivated. The old saying ‘if you want something doing, ask a busy person’ rings very true. Often, the less we do, the less we want to do, so really we just need to find the right balance for ourselves.
“Problems can arise, however, when we’re not given, or don’t give ourselves the opportunity to be less busy and have some down time in our lives. The distracting beeps on our smartphones, endless to-do lists, caring for dependents – these things can eventually take their toll on our mental and physical wellbeing if we don’t allow ourselves to hit the reset button now and again.
“That’s not to say being busy is a bad thing, but it depends what we’re busy with and why. Some of us fear boredom and like to be occupied – and that’s fine! Sometimes we like to take our mind off something that’s worrying us. That's fine, too, as long as we’re not using our busyness as a tactic to avoid something in our life we would benefit from facing up to instead.”
Taking a step back to look at why we’re busy, what we could do less of, accept help with, or simply omit from our lives is an important step in self-care – the very definition of which will be as individual as we are. For some, it might take the form of a night out with friends, going to an exercise class, or having a cup of coffee while letting your mind wander. For others it might be reading a book in the bath, daily meditation, switching off social media, reconnecting with nature or getting some fresh air while out on a walk. The choice is endless, but it’s ours to make.
“While some pressure can be good, it’s less so if you’ve no time or thinking space to develop, be creative or just feel like you’re on top of things. It’s one thing to be firing on all cylinders but quite another to be constantly firefighting – ask yourself which camp you fall into.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, try Dr Winwood’s tips for allowing yourself a bit of down time, without giving yourself a hard time:
- Accept that it’s okay to change pace, for the sake of your own wellbeing, but also for others who might rely on you.
- Carve out some time in your day that’s just for you. It might mean getting up a little earlier, but whatever you do, make sure it’s something that will benefit your wellbeing. When the demands of the day take over, you will at least have done something good for yourself first.
- Prioritise sleep. We’ve heard this many times before, but I can’t stress it enough! You’ll feel calmer and more focussed on your tasks if you’ve had quality sleep. If a lie-in isn’t an option – try having a ‘reverse lie in’ – in other words, go to bed early! Your wind-down routine could include having a bath, listening to some music or reading a book before lights out.
- Know that it’s okay to spend time ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’. Sometime you just need to honour your body and mind by resting up – your central nervous system (the ‘hard-wiring’ in your body, responsible for how you respond to stress) will thank you for it.
- Make time to socialise. Seeing friends that make you feel good and supported will help bring a bit of relief and a realisation that you’re not alone in your feelings. A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Organise yourself by keeping a bullet journal – it’ll help you prioritise your list of ‘to dos’, while learning to accept what can probably go on the backburner.
- Keep a worry diary. Worrying isn’t a productive way to spend your time and before you know it you’ll have busied yourself with irrational thoughts about events that aren’t likely to happen. Read How to challenge worrying thoughts.
If you continue to find it difficult to switch off, or if negative thoughts take over, you might benefit from seeking professional help in the form of a therapist or counsellor, which you can find out more about here.