Opting out of busyness

Sarah, a lifelong over-committer, couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle of burnout. An overwhelming low finally changed the way she spent her time.
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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

I have struggled with being too busy my entire life. The city I grew up in (Ann Arbor, Michigan) had amazing programs for kids, and I remember the program catalog coming in the mail like it was a gift from Santa. I would practically foam at the mouth over the ballet classes, tennis lessons and arts and crafts workshops.

My mom and dad have never been helicopter parents or pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to — my busyness was entirely my own doing.

From tiny busy bee to grownup burnout

I had my first busyness breakdown at age 10. At the time I was a Girl Scout, on a soccer team, taking tap classes and playing viola in the orchestra. When it came time to re-enroll in Girl Scouts, I started crying. My mom asked me what was wrong and I confessed that I felt too busy to continue, but I didn’t want to let everyone down by not coming back.

My mom gently explained that the world wouldn’t end and my community wouldn’t ostracize me if I backed out. She was right — when I stopped going to scout meetings, people barely batted an eye.

Nevertheless, this cycle of overextending myself and breaking down followed me into adulthood. In just the last few years, I have: coached, refereed and played field hockey; volunteered with political campaigns; played classical music in two ensembles; joined a squash league; and participated in and hosted a monthly book club. All while working full time, exercising almost every day, dating and trying to maintain a social life. Until recently, my days were often packed from 8:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m., and I left the house looking like a sherpa with all the things I’d need.

I don’t say this to brag — on the contrary, I cringe a little when I think about how scattered I felt. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of what I was doing to myself. I knew I was rushing everywhere and spent countless therapy sessions trying to figure out how to “do less” (complete with hand-drawn pie charts of how I was spending my time). I just couldn’t seem to stop.

So why didn’t I slow down? Part of it’s that I have so many interests and tend to be extroverted — I often love being around people. The other side, though, was that I wasn’t very comfortable spending time alone. If I found myself without plans for an evening, especially on the weekend, I would reach out to a friend and make plans to go out. I felt like a loser if I was home alone.

An overwhelming low

Things finally came to a head last fall when my busyness, including launching this blog and three weeks of non-stop travel, culminated in a new level of overwhelmed. When I got home, I could barely muster the energy required to go to work every day. For months, I had ZERO energy for social interactions and barely saw my friends. I didn’t feel sad or depressed, just emotionally tired in a way I had never experienced before.

At first, I was concerned. Though it wasn’t uncommon for me to run myself into the ground, it rarely lasted more than a few weeks, and my fatigue usually felt physical, not emotional.

But when I talked to close friends about it, not one was surprised or worried. Most of them had become more introverted and started focusing their energy on fewer things long ago. They helped me realize that the root of my exhaustion was how overextended I’d become, and that feeling burned out was a symptom of that.

As they reassured me that feeling tired and choosing to conserve energy was normal (and probably better for me), I began to develop an odd sense of calm. I leaned into my new, chiller self and started enjoying — even preferring — spending time alone.

With this new sense of calm and a more realistic view of the limitations of my energy, I took stock of what really fulfilled me and how I wanted to use my time. I realized that working on The Juggle made me feel smarter and more creative than I had in years, so I slowly started making more room for it in my life by cutting back on other commitments. First it was music, which was taking up 1-2 nights a week. Then it was coaching field hockey, which took three hours on Sundays. I kept only the things that brought me the most joy and involved the least commitment.

Fighting off busyness (a work in progress)

Here’s what my less busy life looks like now: I’ve bounced back from the deepest depths of my exhaustion because I do A LOT less. The only “set” things on my calendar are field hockey on Sundays and a monthly book club. I’m focused on the friends I love the most who allow me to relax and be my true self. I don’t dread spending time alone, and I enjoy evenings that involve cooking dinner, reading and relaxing.

But I’m still a work in progress. Ironically, the week I wrote this article, I took on way more than felt comfortable — I started physical therapy, started a big new project at work, drove to a different city to interview one of my idols, saw my doctor and my dentist, hung out with friends, dove into learning more about wealth management and started the process of looking for a house to buy.

Clearly, I have some work to do around saying “no” to things up front so that I don’t have to remove them from my plate when I realize I’ve overcommitted. I’d like to get better attuned to my energy level so that I know how much I’ll feel good taking on at a given time. My goal is to stave off busyness and make plenty of time to recharge, but I know I’ll have to stay aware so that old habits don’t creep back in.

I’m so curious (and need suggestions, obviously) about how others manage their time and energy. How do you keep from getting too busy? Is that even possible? Share your tips in the comments!

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4 thoughts on “Opting out of busyness

  1. Girl!!! I love people but I am VERY committed to a hefty amount of ‘me’ time. I treat my personal calendar the same way I treat my work calendar: What has a deadline, or just big repercussions if I don’t do it ASAP? Almost everything else can be spaced out so I don’t cram too much into one week or one weekend. The key is, instead of a vague “Raincheck?” request, actually propose a different date that works better for you, and actually follow through.

    1. This is so helpful. I’m also trying to be more realistic about what actually needs to be done ASAP and what can wait. It’s so hard for me to resist trying to do everything on my to-do lists as fast as possible, but therein lies madness. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Appreciate the vulnerability here – thank you for sharing. Getting comfortable spending time alone is goal of mine for 2019, especially disassociating being alone with a fear of missing out, not being cared about, etc. Good luck on your journey!

    1. You’re so welcome and I’m glad it resonated with you. I love your goal and hope you learn to enjoy being alone. It’s definitely a journey, but a really rewarding one. Keep us posted!

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