It was Michael Neill who first raised my awareness of this distinction. Have a read and see what occurs to you.
What are we looking at here?
A couple of people in my life this week have been in touch about feeling stressed and anxious even though they don’t have a lot on. And then of course there are times when we feel stressed when we do have a lot on. Consider that ‘stress’ is an exaggerated form of ‘busy’, and that busy feelings are a reflection of a busy mind, not of a busy life.
Busy is a feeling. Having a lot on is maths.
Have you ever had a situation where you felt so busy, frantic busy? But then something shifted and you realised that you didn’t actually have that much to do and you just got it done; one thing at a time? And have you had a situation where you were powering through mountains of work with ease like a work-eating demon but without any sense of being busy?
So being busy and having a lot on are not bedfellows. One isn’t causal to the other. It just so happens that sometimes we have a lot on AND feel busy at the same time. Given it’s the frantic busy feeling we tend not to want, and therefore try to get rid of, what’s going on with that.
Have you ever made a feeling happen?
In your life, when you’ve been happy or sad, loving or mad, clear or confused did you ‘make’ any of those feelings appear?
Maybe you’re pointing outside of yourself right now saying they made me mad, they made me happy, that plan gave me clarity, the gift gave me joy. But when has the apparently same behaviour from someone or something not made you mad, or not made you happy, and when has the same plan looked daunting or a gift seemed meaningless?
So if those ‘things’ can’t have caused your feeling state, did you do it? Did ‘you’ make those feelings appear?
Now think about when those feelings disappeared, did you make that happen?
Again you might be looking outside yourself. Pointing to things that have seemed to change your mood — going for a run, meditating, having a coffee, talking to a friend. But when has a run, or meditation, or coffee, or a friend not been able to disappear the feelings? And therefore again, if those things can’t be causal, were you? Did ‘you’ make the feeling disappear?
In doing this, was there an emotional bias?
Notice in that last example, did you only think about disappearing the bad feelings. Times when it looks like you made the ‘bad’ feelings go away by doing something about them.
What about when happiness disappeared and merged into normal baseline-of-life feelings? You didn’t ‘do’ that, and I’d bet that neither did you look for a way to get rid of the happy feeling, like you did with that bad feeling. And notice the ease with which it happened. It didn’t require you to be involved for it to change.
The same is true of all feelings, and that includes busyness. Busy feelings appear, hang around a while, and disappear. So then what is it we think we’re doing when we try to make a feeling go away? Seems like they do it perfectly well on their own.
So do I do nothing?
We’ve been so well conditioned into doing something about feelings that things might still get done to try and ease the ones we don’t like. If you’re busy, maybe you write a list, go for that run, cry. Whatever happens, is all that can happen. No right or wrong. You’re always doing what makes sense.
But the more you see that feelings are just doing what feelings do and that they aren’t something for us to manage or control, a lightness opens back up. We stop piling meaning onto them or searching for things to blame ‘out there’ as the cause, and therefore also stop trying to wrestle our way out of them.
Then, like with happiness returning to your normal baseline, so too for the busy. Busy feelings appear, happen for a while, then return to normal baseline. Anything you do in the meantime is what you do.
There is no right way to do anything and, the more we think there is, the more we live in imagined limits and, paradoxically, create more tension.
So then, is ‘having a lot on’ really just maths?
Having explored the nature of busyness, how it’s always a function of whichever thoughts are believed in the moment, what about having a lot on? Is it really just maths?
Have an explore…is there something in your life or work that you do regularly, doing a pretty similar activity or process each time?
For example, each Friday I write my newsletter and set up the coming week of social media. Some weeks this takes me 5 hours. Some weeks it takes me 2. Not because in one week I’m doing less ‘stuff’, the same number of activities are done, but some weeks it just pours out, for some, it feels like a stop-start and for others a trudge.
So we can’t even actually know if we have a lot on because there’s no reliable calculation to say ‘this will take X hours and therefore I have too much on’.
There’s no harm in estimating and blocking a theoretical amount of time out of a diary but it’s really useful to know it’s not a fixed thing. Just because we think it will take that long doesn’t mean it will. The moment we think our idea of ‘it will take this long’ is a truth or a rule, that life must now conform to, we will suffer the moment life deviates from that.
When I fight with reality I lose, but only 100% of the time.
And it’s so brilliant that we suffer. When you know it’s always showing you that you’re taking an idea as reality you always know what’s going on. And, given no feeling lasts forever, that there’s always a return to baseline, you come to know that you’re really OK no matter what.
What my client noticed
A senior leader and mum in a busy business, my client felt like there was always so much to do and never enough time to do it. But then, while we were working together, she took some holiday. When she came back to work she noticed – oh! I’ve come back to the same number of meetings, the same volume of emails, and the same length of to-do list, but it all feels fine. I don’t feel rushed. I don’t feel under pressure. I’m just getting things done in the order that makes sense, knowing that’s all that can happen, and re-prioritising as she went.
What had changed? Nothing but the busyness in her mind. The holiday had settled her thinking so that the world of work looked entirely different on her return – even though the content of it hadn’t materially changed.
She recognised how there was a different idea in play that ‘it’s OK to not be all over everything, you’re just back from holidays’ which of course came with reduced feelings of pressure. Over the coming days she noticed the old thoughts returning; ideas of having to perform, and do her best, and be on-it but this time the thoughts didn’t look so convincing. In seeing that the stressful feelings weren’t coming from the work, and were only coming from believing ideas about what was required, it wasn’t making sense anymore to follow the thoughts that would create that stressful experience.
Our system really is very intelligent when we show it what’s actually going on.
So what now?
Get curious…start to question what might have looked so rock-solidly true in your experience of busy feelings, and in the idea of having a lot on.
And I’d love to hear what you discover!