How to be addicted to busyness

An excerpt from 'Tired as F*ck: Burnout at the Hands of Diet, Self-Help, and Hustle Culture'
February 8, 2022, 7:00 PM UTC
A book cover of Tired as F*ck
“Tired as F*ck: Burnout at the Hands of Diet, Self-Help, and Hustle Culture” by Caroline Dooner
Courtesy of Harper Wave

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Five years ago, I found myself extremely burnt out. I was tapped out physically, emotionally, and mentally. But the strangest part of all was that there was no overt or straightforward explanation for my burnout. On the surface, it didn’t really make sense. I wasn’t particularly busier than anyone else. My life wasn’t harder than anyone else’s. In fact, I could have pointed to a number of ways that my life was easier than a lot of people’s. And still, I couldn’t deny it: I was burnt out. I literally couldn’t muster the strength to keep going at the rate I was going.

What I realized pretty quickly was that my burnout had actually crept up on me after more than a decade of low-grade anxiety and constant subconscious pressure that I was supposed to be doing something differently. A slew of unexamined cultural expectations I’d taken on had been allowed to slowly deplete my life force over time. 

I decided to embark on a radical journey of rest. Two years of rest, in fact. As extreme as it sounds, it wasn’t going to be two years of nothing. Instead, it was meant to be a deliberate period of time where I reevaluated the way I was living, and the things I was allowing to deplete me, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. I wasn’t going to be lying in bed for the entire two years. I wasn’t taking two years off work. But I was going to become very aware of the forces that had run me down and see if I could let some of those things go.

There were lots of different parts of my own life that I had to reevaluate, take a break from, or let go of entirely, in order to recover from the state I was in. And those are all things I talk about in my upcoming book, Tired as F*ck. But one of the big forces that I realized was at play in my life was my own unexamined addiction to “busyness.” I realized that I didn’t actually have to be the busiest person in the world to get burnt out. My own mentality and relationship to busyness and productivity had actually been able to slowly deplete me over time. 

Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book Tired As F*ck, out on Feb. 8, unpacking our cultural addiction to “busyness.”

headshot of Caroline Dooner
Caroline Dooner is an author, humorist, and storyteller.
Courtesy of Harper Wave

A lot of us are addicted to busyness. And I honestly didn’t know “busyness” was a real word, but my computer is not autocorrecting it, so I guess it is a real word. We have an addiction to being busy. Not all of us, but a lot of us.

We use busyness as a wonderful, horrible distraction from life, and pain, and emotions, and things we don’t want to face. It’s a distraction from learning to be with ourselves. And it’s sneaky, because it is a very socially acceptable addiction. We wear it as a badge of honor. I am soooo busy. I have soooooo much to do. It is a close relative of workaholism, another socially acceptable addiction. Another close cousin is perfectionism and addiction to “control.” They’re behavioral addictions, meaning the “high” is coming from the behavior, as opposed to a substance.

Our problem with busyness and productivity is twofold: First, it’s a distraction from deeper things. And second, we’ve learned it’s a responsible and noble distraction. So, we think it’s inherently healthy, even when it isn’t. Which may lead to it going unexamined for a very long time.

Busyness, workaholism, and perfectionism are also not-so-distant relatives of eating disorders, disordered eating, and weight obsession through micromanaging food and engaging in compulsive exercise. And I want to remind you that binge eating, emotional eating, and compulsive eating are all directly exacerbated by dieting, as well as rules and guilt around food. Which means that a lot of what we think of as being “out of control around food” is actually being perpetuated by attempts at weight control and food perfectionism in the first place. When we think of “coping mechanisms,” we often think about compulsive eating, but we don’t usually think about how our relationship with productivity, busyness, working, dieting, control, and perfectionism affects our relationship with food (and lots of other things too).

So why are we addicted to busyness? It’s the same reason we are addicted to any behavior. It’s a distraction. It’s a distraction from emotions. It’s a distraction from unresolved trauma. It’s a distraction from feeling lost or discontent. And it’s also something we have been conditioned to believe is responsible and important. And if you are constantly being impressive and responsible with your busyness, there isn’t any time for reflection, there’s just constant activity, sleep (if you can), then rinse and repeat.

It’s also one of our newer cult mentalities. Derek Thompson’s article “Workism Is Making Americans Miserableasserts that for the college-educated elite, working has turned into “a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.” And even though traditional religious faith has declined, still: “everybody worships something,” be it food purity and exercise or working yourself to exhaustion. The problem with this setup is that it’s leading to mass anxiety and burnout.

There is nothing inherently wrong with being busy—it’s a normal part of life. Life gets busy. Not to mention that productivity can be really joyful for people, especially if they’re doing things they love, or just…doing things that need to be done. Being busy is morally neutral. And life getting busy is totally normal. It’s just that, unchecked, it can run away with us. Unchecked, maybe we start to forget that busyness requires recharging in order to be sustainable.

Being productive can be really good for our mental health, but the issue comes once it becomes a compulsion. It’s the same thing with exercise. Exercise is great for our physical and mental health, but not when it’s a compulsion that begins to rule our lives. So, the question is…are you using busyness as a way to distract yourself from things that need attention? If someone took your busyness away, what would happen? If the answer is that you would be casually bummed—that’s a good sign. Hey, why did you take away all the things I love to do? But if we are terrified of slowing down, it’s probably not because we have a “passion for busyness,” it’s more likely because we are using busyness as a badge of honor, or a distraction, or we’re avoiding something deeper.

We all have different paces we feel comfortable with, too. Some people need a slower pace. Some people thrive with a faster pace. Yes, there can still be avoidance going on for the inherently fast-paced people, but some people just love doing things. Not everyone wants to live a quiet, slow-paced life. Neither is wrong. The thing to examine is…are we using busyness as a method for avoidance? Lots of us are.

The other problem is what we associate with busyness, and what we associate with rest. We associate busyness and constant productivity with being responsible and morally good. We associate rest with laziness and being morally bad. We think rest can’t do anything for us. It’s a sign of weakness. It’s a sign we are irresponsible. Because that’s what our productivity culture cult taught us.

So, this comes back to the same thing again: What have we learned? What have we learned that we are operating under, and what is it really doing for us? Because really, rest and downtime and stillness are healing. Living in a constant state of stress and adrenaline and activity usually ends up, best-case scenario: burning people out. Worst-case scenario: making us sick. Or coexisting with other addictions that help us to avoid whatever we’re trying to avoid. Many people who are addicted to busyness may also be addicted to other behaviors or substances to do the same thing: distract and avoid.

And…what are we avoiding? Do we even know? Some of us might. Or we might have an idea. Maybe processing grief. Maybe processing known trauma. Maybe facing insecurity or emotions we were taught weren’t safe to feel. Or maybe…we don’t know at all. Maybe we have so successfully avoided it that we have absolutely no idea. Maybe we need to find a therapist to help us start to figure it out. And maybe we need more downtime to see what starts to reveal itself.

I can’t believe I keep putting myself in a position where I’m telling everyone to deal with all these really hard things. Deal with your crippling self-hatred and learn to eat more, you hungry fool! Learn to deal with your childhood trauma and stop numbing yourself with overexercise and bringing home work. I don’t know how I found myself in this position. I’d rather just tell you weird stories. And I just want to be able to tell you that you are allowed to relax, but the truth is, the reason we aren’t letting ourselves relax is that we don’t think we are allowed to, or because we are running from something. And it’s not easy. But someone has to say it. And I guess, ugh, today, that someone is me.

So let me say it all again: You are allowed to relax. You are allowed to rest. Downtime is good for your brain. It’s good for your body. It’s good for your nervous system. Even if it wasn’t good for you, you’d still be allowed to do it, because your worth is not dependent on your productivity or responsibility.

If you start to take some downtime and feel impending terror, there are probably some underlying things to deal with and heal from. And it might take time, effort, and lots and lots of support. But you can do it. I know you can.

From the book Tired as F*ck: Burnout at the Hands of Diet, Self-Help, and Hustle Culture by Caroline Dooner. Copyright © 2022 by Caroline Dooner. Published by Harper Wave, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.