When did being busy become the equivalent of being virtuous?

Nearly every day, I find myself in some kind of conversation about how busy we are—working, caring for family, solving one kind of problem or another. Especially among women, how well you can multi-task, juggling a job, childcare, other family duties, care for aging parents, errands, entertaining, housework, you-name-it, has become the way we promote ourselves and size each other up. The busier you are, the more ably you handle more stuff, the better. You can complain about being too busy, but there is always pride beneath the gripe. Of course, if you do all of this while managing your own health challenges, you score extra points in the Superwoman contest.

It drives me crazy.

Even as I let myself get sucked into it.

I can multi-task with the best. I run my own consulting business and our home. For years I did extensive volunteer work on top of commuting more than an hour each way to a full-time job. I raised two daughters while running a college marketing department, taking on community leadership roles and managing my parents’ needs for help as their health deteriorated. I’m the go-to mom when my adult daughters ask for advice or support with decisions big and small. All while doing my best to keep myself as healthy and fit as possible with scleroderma.

There. See? I’m busy, too.

But I want to slow down. In fact, I believe my long-term health depends on it. Working for myself these past three years, setting my own agenda, ditching that exhausting commute, working with clients that I enjoy—all of this helps. I no longer do evening meetings and now use my afterwork hours for exercise or creative hobbies that recharge my batteries. I choose volunteer commitments selectively, focusing on work that’s uplifting, rather than spreading myself too thin over projects with stressful politics.

Even still, I feel out of balance. There’s that voice in my head, urging me to be productive, to not waste time. Idle hands are the devil’s playthings and all that. Our culture’s Calvinist undercurrent runs deep.

And there’s another piece. When I’m still, when I’m not busy doing, making, fixing, there are other thoughts that bubble up—worries about my health, all the what-ifs. What if my scleroderma gets a lot worse? What if something happens to Al? What if he loses his job and our health insurance? On and on.

Healthy or not, we all have these worries. But chronic disease brings an added sense of vulnerability. Easy to avoid it if you keep so busy that the disturbing thoughts can’t surface.

One answer is meditating. Mindfulness practice forces you to sit still, let all those thoughts float past as you continually bring your attention to the present moment—which, 99.9 percent of the time, is actually safe, peaceful and just, well, there.

I try to do this every morning. I try to sit still and breathe. I’m not terribly good at it, because I want to get going with the day. If I can sit for five minutes, I’m doing well.

Occasionally I join a drop-in group on Monday afternoons, led by a gifted friend who is a seasoned mindfulness teacher, and manage to meditate for a half-hour. Afterward, I usually feel refreshed and reminded of the tremendous value of just being in the present moment. And tell myself I need to refocus my day on what really matters, rather than all those to-do lists.

On my desk, next to my iMac, I keep a small pink sticky note with a quote by Marlene Dietrich, paraphrasing her longtime love, Ernest Hemingway:

“Don’t do what you sincerely don’t want to do. Never confuse movement with action.”


Photo Credit: Tie Guy II via Compfight cc

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.


  1. Pat Bizzell says:

    Cutting back on the busyness becomes essential as we get older. I love the Dietrich quote about not confusing movement with action. This post comes just as I have been having an interesting email correspondence with another woman academic close to my age. We both made names for ourselves with particular kinds of work in our fields, and we both are getting tired of doing that kind of work and wanting to branch into new areas of study. These are areas that simply interest and attract us, without much professional gain in prospect, and we’ve both found that we meet resistance from colleagues when we try to go in those directions (not that this is stopping us!). There is tremendous pressure in the academy to re-play one’s “greatest hits” with a few more new verses. Trying something completely different is a good way to make less busyness more productive!

  2. That’s great, Pat. And you never know where these new interest will lead.

Speak Your Mind