The Dangers Of Being Too Busy

Stroll down the street in any major metropolitan city and you’ll see it: stressed-out, chronically overtired people running to the next obligation without stopping to breathe, eat, or think. It’s just as prevalent in suburbs where moms drive their kids from activity to activity without pause, and in workplaces where employees work for 70-hour weeks with just two weeks off per year. This go-go-go mentality is what Johns Hopkins researchers call “the cult of busy”. It’s pervasive, it’s unavoidable, and it’s damaging our lives.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

Read on to learn how being too busy poses dangers for our bodies, relationships, and lifestyles, and what you can do today to stop being so busy so that you can finally get well-deserved rest.

The History Of Being Too Busy

Humans haven’t always been too busy. It’s only in the last few hundred years that a time deficit has begun to take a toll on our health.

For thousands of years, most humans lived in agrarian societies where time was fluid, measured by the rising and setting of the sun and the passing of the seasons. Timelines and hours didn’t matter.

Only in the 18th century did time measurements become refined enough that clocks could be reliable scientific instruments.

The dangers of being too busy have been paramount as public health concern since the mid-20th century. The emergence of the atomic clock in the 1950s meant that humanity could now measure time down to the nanosecond – and humans saw a massive increase in stress as a result!

Hans Selye, the “Father of Stress Science”, published the first findings on the effects of chronic stress on the entire body in the mid-1940s. This established the rich field of stress science and brought the message to the public sphere that being too busy is not a good thing.

How Today’s Culture Promotes Busyness

Seventy years after Seyle’s first findings, Johns Hopkins researchers have dubbed today’s culture “the cult of busy”. We pack our schedules with activities from dawn to dusk and train our children to be too busy from an early age.

We feel too busy because today’s culture encourages constant action as the primary metric of success. The busier we are, the more successful we feel.

Wearing busyness as a badge of honor spills into the lives of children, too. They are signed up for after-school activities from an early age and have packed schedules through high school to prepare them for college. It’s no wonder the cult of busyness is all-pervasive.

Read more: Especially at work, people find it difficult to set clear boundaries. Discover how to say no without feeling guilty.

Being Too Busy Creates A Chronic Stress Response

Understanding the dangers of being too busy starts with a grasp of how the body responds to stress. Stress is the root of many of the physical, mental, and relational issues that come from the constant state of busyness.

A stress response is an innate protective physiological response to a perceived threat in our environment. When we sense danger, the body releases adrenaline to prepare us to escape the danger and endorphins to numb us to pain. Our heart rate goes up, muscles become tight, our senses get hyper-sensitive and we get a massive physical power boost that prepares us to run from danger.

This response is incredibly useful in times of actual physical danger when the fight-or-flight response is appropriate: a fire, a car crash, or an attempted mugging. It’s not so useful, however, when we can’t use our body to fight or flee from the stressor. It might feel nice to imagine tossing your boss out the window, but that’s totally illegal in 2019.

Chronic stress happens when we can’t release the pent-up stress response. We begin the next task at work, mentally curse our boss, and the stress hormones keep mounting.

Read more: Mindfulness expert explains the difference between stress and anxiety.

Detrimental Effects Of Chronic Stress On The Body

The body provides the first signals that we’ve been too busy and our stress levels are mounting. Experiencing physical manifestations of stress can be an indicator that we need to live better. Ignoring them can cause burnout, disease, and damage the body long-term.

The most common physical symptoms of stress include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems, including feeling exhausted and insomnia
  • Chest pain or heart palpitations
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal discomforts, such as cramps, stomachaches, indigestion, constipation, and diarrhea

While none of these symptoms will be a show-stopper if experienced once, chronic stress has major detrimental effects in the long-term. Scientists have discovered that chronic stress shrinks the brain’s grey matter. It also changes our epigenetic makeup over time, causing long-term changes in our brain programming and stress response.

Read more: You’ve felt it: confused, irritable, spacey, unable to focus on one thing. Learn what causes brain fog and how to get rid of it.

Relationships Suffer When We Are Constantly Too Busy

The busier we are, the more our relationships suffer. We become over-tired, overworked, and lack the time to share special moments with loved ones… We aren’t present even when we are physically present. Being busy takes emotional energy, physical energy, or both. It becomes easy to lose your spark in relationships at work and at home.

Never turning off creates a phenomenon called “toxic time”, in which we are physically present but emotionally distant or preoccupied with other things. This can include worrying about your kids’ futures when you’re at their soccer game or worrying about work when we’re on a date. It makes us feel guilty about everything else we “should” be doing other than what we’re doing right now. 

Toxic time has a detrimental effect on relationships with others and ourselves. It can cause others to feel like they’re not seen or heard and damage precious moments of connection. With us, it means we never really rest at any moment because the mind is constantly worrying.

The upshot of this is relationships fall by the wayside. Kids grow up in a flash and we don’t remember their childhoods. It’s a lose-lose.

Read more: Establish more mindful, present moments with your loved ones and strengthen your family resilience with Fleur Chamber’s “4 C” concept.

Workplaces Become Dangerous & Less Productive

Being too busy is damaging in the workplace, too. Unfortunately, contemporary work culture means that in many situations “face time at work matters”, keeping us in the office longer even when it’s not productive, as reported in a 2010 study by the Tamstock Institute.

The CDC reports that working more than 40 hours means workers are more likely to get injured, less productive, and create less economic benefit overall. One study showed that overtime and extended working hours increase hazard risk by 23% for 60-hour weeks and 37% for 70-hour weeks. 

Working too much has intangible hazards, too. It causes us to be less morally aware of situations and others around us. We can fall into acting unethically or making workplace decisions that we’d regret if we’re capping 80-hour workweeks.

Read more: Discover how to de-stress at work to create more calm, focus and happiness at your workplace. Also read how meditating during a long commute can decrease stress levels throughout the day.

Undoing Busyness In Everyday Life

Being too busy prevents us from having a happy life. Not being present means we miss life’s most precious moments. Agreeing to take on more than we can handle means we make sacrifices, like our own health or our family’s happiness. John Kabat-Zinn says:

“Saying yes to more things than we can actually manage to be present for with integrity and ease of being is, in effect, saying no to all those things and people and places we have already said yes to.”

Stay busy forever and risk waking up one day to realize you never achieved your dreams. It’s the classic regret moment when we wake up one day and realize just how much we’ve been neglecting the single thing that we once cared about the most.

Pause now and practice mindfulness with one of these popular guided meditations:

  1. Quiet and Connected - Mindfulness Meditation Joseph Goldstein 11:40
  2. Gateway To Presence Tara Brach 10:31
  3. Mindfulness Meditation Ram Dass 18:13
  4. Mindfulness Meditation Hugh Byrne 15:05
  5. Mindful Awareness Meditation Kate James 9:39
  6. A Few Minutes of Mindfulness Melli O'Brien 6:40
  7. Mindfulness Now Joshua Canter 14:29
  8. Mindfulness Of Body And Breath Mark Williams 8:09
  • Externalize your memory by journaling or list-making to make room for more important thoughts and reduce toxic time.

Read more: Explore the benefits of writing down your emotions and thoughts for your mental health and happiness.

  • Finally, taking a moment to pause, reflect, and appreciate how far you’ve come will go a long way to creating space in your life for happiness to flower.

Meditation. Free.