Busyness… is an illness.
On a chilly January morning just inside the entryway to a Washington D.C. subway station, a young man took his violin out of its case and brought it up to his shoulder. He was dressed in regular clothes — just jeans and a t-shirt. And although he had a face many people found attractive, on this particular morning it was mostly obscured by a dark baseball cap and shaggy brown hair.
After plucking the strings for a couple minutes to tune his instrument, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a few dollar bills, which he tossed into the violin case in front of him with the hopes that a few passers-by would do the same. It was a very active morning in the subway station as the young man began to play.
Thousands of people were busy hurrying to work, school, or wherever they were headed. Trains were coming and going — the morning rush was in full swing. Yet through all the busyness, the incredible sound of this young man’s violin filled the subway station.
It was impossible to ignore.
Or was it?
Over the course of 43 minutes, more than 1,000 people walked through the doors of the subway entrance where Joshua Bell was playing. And if he was any other street performer, perhaps it would have been insignificant that he earned the attention of just a few people and just a small handful of change.
But Joshua Bell wasn’t just any street performer. He was, and is, possibly the world’s most renowned violinist. And he was playing one of the most difficult classical masterpieces ever composed. And that masterpiece was being played on a $3,000,000 (yes, million) violin that emitted one of the most pure, eloquent sounds in the world.
Yet almost nobody noticed. Why?
Because he didn’t look like anyone special.
And because everyone was way too busy hurrying to pause and notice the music.
Busyness: A Tragic Mistake on the Average Day
Think about it…
How often is that your excuse?
It used to be my excuse every single day. Like those 1,000 people who ran past Joshua Bell’s music without a moment to spare, my schedule used to leave me zero time for unplanned presence and awareness.
And I was proud of my busyness. I wore it like a badge!
I wanted to remind everyone of how tough I had it. I wanted everyone to know how driving from place to place to place in my comfortable Honda was a huge pain in the butt. Not to mention how Angel and I would have to juggle business and family. Helping our course students and readers, and then immediately rushing out to buy and wrap birthday gifts? Don’t even get me started! And then only having an hour to get our son fed and bathed before bed each night, so we could get him to sleep and prepare to do it all over again…
“Didn’t you hear me? I am super busy, everybody! Keep this in mind and have mercy on me! Please!”
Yes, that’s exactly what I used to want you to know about me….
But not anymore.
Now I actually pause to hear the music. And I’m proud of it.
Here’s the thing: Busyness is NOT a badge of honor. There’s no honor at all in senseless and endless busyness. And most busyness on the average day is just a tragic mistake that makes life overwhelming.
Life Quickly Gets Harder than it Should Be
If we’re not below the poverty line, juggling three jobs at once just to put food on the table, then our busyness is self-inflicted 98% of the time (the exception being that 2% of the time when truly difficult life events blindside us).
I finally got a handle on my busyness when I studied it long enough to realize that, yes… my busyness was within my control. In fact, most of the time I actually created hurry and worry where none actually existed. On any normal weekday, you would have found me running around begging family, business associates, and basically everyone nearby to move faster…
“If you don’t finish eating, we’re going to be late!”
“If we don’t get this task done in the next 10 minutes… we’re never going to hit our target!”
The funny thing is, whether I provoked everyone around me to move faster or not, we always collectively moved at about the same pace anyway. But when I provoked them, everyone (including myself) was unhappier and more stressed out.
It became crystal clear to me that nearly all of my busyness was an overreaction in my head. I was manufacturing it in hopes that it would create urgency in others, and somehow make my life easier. Instead it did the exact opposite — my busyness only created anxiety, bitterness and complexity. And even on days when the busyness was real (lots of things to do), it was typically due to an overbooked schedule I had personally created.
All of this got me thinking:
Why in the world am I voluntarily making my life harder, busier, and unhappier than it has to be?
The Reason & Answer for Constant Busyness
Sadly, a big part of the reason we fill our lives with constant busyness has to do with the always-plugged-in, always-connected, always-sharing, always-comparing society we live in.
We subconsciously default to defining ourselves based on where we are and what we have in relation to everyone else.
If we don’t have a “better” career, house, car, or pair of shoes, we feel inferior. And the only way we can possibly do better and level up, is to be busier doing… whatever! After all, we are what we do, right? Job title, employer, etc. — aren’t these typically the first things we share with strangers we meet at parties?
We fill our social media feeds and our calendars with manufactured and airbrushed busyness to make ourselves feel special or more important than average. But in the process, we not only miss out on the serenity and beauty that exists within ourselves, but we also miss out on experiencing that same serenity and beauty in the world around us, because our busyness has buried it with “hurry” and “worry,” and the endless need to be somewhere else, doing something else, as fast as feasibly possible.
Ready for a positive change in your life?
Join Angel and me…
Let’s wake-up every morning together and begin our days mindfully with some quiet journaling and self-reflection.
Let’s start making our days less busy and more beneficial.
Let’s start keeping our lives ordered and our schedules under-booked.
Let’s start creating a foundation with a soft place to land, a wide margin for error, and room to think and breathe.
So we can pause to hear the music, and smile, when the opportunity arises.
Before you go, please leave Angel and me a comment below and let us know what you think of this essay. Your feedback is important to us. 🙂
How has senseless busyness affected your life?
Finally, if you haven’t done so already, be sure to sign-up for our free newsletter to receive new articles like this in your inbox each week.
Photo by: emil mk
Mary Anna says
Marc, this post is an excellent reminder — a life filled with less busyness and a more presence — a concept I know so well, and yet I needed you to frame it this way for me.
Honestly, this post reminds me of a quote that Angel and you referenced in the Simplicity chapter of your 1000 Little Things book:
“Life is actually really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
I couldn’t agree more! Thank you, yet again!
I remember chasing life. Today, the little things in life matters. The smell of fresh cut grass, bird tweeting, and flowers blooming brighten my day in a delightful way. The little things have gave me a greater appreciation for me. Although none of this could be accomplished without prayer.
Wendy Hogan says
I really related to this article. I used to rush through life, then I became physically unable to. I had to slow down. When I did I really noticed more in the world. Thanks for reminding me.
Grateful Reader says
Your emails always make my day and have helped me through the most difficult years of my life. Years when I have been in a lot of pain, unable to work properly, and struggling with depression and low self esteem from feeling I am no longer contributing to society. Words cannot express how much your emails have helped me and continue to do so. Thank you so much
Wow! I totally agree that we fill far too much of our time with meaningless stress, worries, and time-filler activities that don’t uphold any of our core goals and values. Too often I find that I’m just spinning my wheels and taking up time that could be spent more intentionally. This has been one of my biggest issues, and it’s something your emails and posts have helped me with over the past year. So thank you.
Rebecca Mattox says
I decided to go back to school for a masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Art Therapy and I honestly feel like it has ruined my life. I know people have it worse but each day I question my existence. I’m just too darn busy and burnt out! I feel so stressed all the time because I am overthinking everything. I know I need therapy now. This post reminded me to get the help I need, thanks!
Like many people I come from a business where busyness is considered the highest calling. Sometimes I still have trouble reminding myself that exclaiming that you’re busy or even -being- busy can be entirely different from being happy and productive. I still get wonderful things done, but my life quality is simply better.
This is an article that describes that feeling very well! Need to save it 😉
Therese Young says
For those of us not on the poverty line we are constantly measuring our progress (and coming up short). We associate progress with happiness, and to a certain extent that’s true, but only if we can take time to ‘notice’ the progress. Otherwise it’s just a treadmill. Thanks for the reminder to smell the roses, hear the music, and actually notice the progress and and goodness in our lives. 🙂
I loved every word of this. Such an important message for us all these days…I’ve sent this on to many.
Although I think many got this wake up call recently in 2020, my own wake up call back in the late 70s. I was living in Boston at the time. We got hit with an incredible blizzard that closed the city down for five whole days. No cars, no work, cross country skiing in the streets. It felt like Dickensian England. Lots of peace, silence, beauty, down time, and uninterrupted opportunities to get together with friends and neighbors for cozy spaghetti dinners. Truly, a one time opportunity to slow down effortlessly.
What did I do after three days of this lovely experience?? Talked a friend of mine from another state to pick me up at a train station 45 minutes out of town to go for a ski weekend. Total insanity. I have no idea how I could have even gotten to the train station with all my ski gear…there were no cabs running!
Now, lesson learned about my own addiction to busyness, I love a good snow storm for the very reason that I escaped that “mother of them all.” I love the relaxation of just watching the snow come down, calling and meeting up with friends, making small talk with neighbors outside shoveling, eating junk food to my heart’s content, reading, knitting, watching old movies, and generally being completely lazy, relaxed, happy and content with the silence and beauty of Nature’s great gift.
I’ve now lived in Washington, D.C. for the past 10 years so am actually familiar with the violinist in the metro story. How very sad and, for many of us, a lesson in the disease of busyness. Thanks for the wake up call we all need!
This has really hit home for me. I am a people pleaser, always have been. Although, this causes me a great deal of unnecessary stress when it results in me never being able to say NO to anyone. I never have time to appreciate what I already have, where I am, or WHO I am at any stage in my day. This leads to me feeling worried and stressed and stops me feeling gratitude on a daily basis.
I am SO ready for this change!
Jennifer Patterson says
Such a great reminder that I need to slow down more! Working full time, about to start our summer camp on top of that, my daughters cheer schedule and all the rest of the responsibilities of life…I tend to always feel overwhelmed and exhausted! I took a few hours yesterday to watch McConaughey and other great speakers – The Art Of Livin’ event – was fantastic! You guys inspire me each time I ready something you end over! This and yesterday was definitely a reminder and wake up call to act now and not wait – to have change, I have to change the ways I’m living now. May each of us have a blessed, fulfilled, productive day!
Gerry Tucker says
After a busy life in a college environment I was fortunate enough to retire. Only then did I realize how addicted I was to being busy. In retirement I often became anxious about nothing because I wasn’t busy. I wish I had learned this lesson earlier. Slow down, be in the moment, and let some things go. Enjoy each day and appreciate being present.
Brenda Rogers says
GREAT writing and reminder! We need to slow down, and my mother in law always used to say, “It’s the little things that matters most.”
I enjoy your articles.
Brenda from Bradford, Ontario
Tom J says
Hi, as I’ve aged the realization that I have far fewer days left has pivoted me to ‘stop and smell the roses’. To treasure the moments of life. To treasure the sights, sounds and smells. Most of all to practice gratitude. And in that vein, I want to thank you both for all of your posts, articles, and books. My one regret is that it took me so long to fully appreciate it, so many years in the hamster wheel of life acquiring status, wealth, etc.
Beverly J says
Thank you for this reminder… I’m going to practice being less busy in my life to enjoy each day a little bit more.
Valerie R. says
Excellent advice for me right at this very moment. I need to make a new habit of going slow and ‘letting things go’ a little more. Thank you so much for your article!
When I was working, everyone talked about being “so busy” as if it were a badge of honor and an indication of just how important they perceived themselves to be. Honestly I think they attached more value on being busy than being productive. Not the same thing. My observations were that people who talked about being busy actually were not so productive. I felt a little sorry for them not taking the time to appreciate the small “in between” moments of life that create richness.
Now that I am retired, I am quite busy, choosing the things that bring me joy and allow me to spread joy during the day. Your comments centered on being “attentive” to me. People who choose to be so busy can miss out on so much…like hearing the beautiful violin music by a street player who if they didn’t pass a swift judgement upon because they were busy rushing by might have been more appreciated sharing his joyful gift that day. Not that it mattered to him though because he was sharing his wonderful gift.
Thank you for all your stories. They are wonderful.
Thank you! A very timely article on pacing oneself I totally agree with your sentiments… we can miss so much on life’s journey being far too busy – most of us get caught up I guess… Parts of lock down gave me space to review & reflect on such aspects in my life. And I am lucky (I do realise) to have been able to cultivate Tuesday as a my “space” day. It’s about being at home alone that day… minimum time to media interference. Mainly instrumental uplifting music peppered with intermittent reading, creativity, garden, nature, meditation… and my whole being gives a big sigh. It’s a bliss time.
During the pandemic it felt like we all were able to find those quiet moments of reflection and realize that the busyness of life didn’t feel good.
Unfortunately, as much as I have tried to embrace that, and remind others that we cherished not feeling rushed all the time, it feels like we are there again in the busyness — and then some.
Love this reminder post about busyness! Something I need to gradually work on…
Just sitting down to read this article gave me a moment to pause, to breathe & appreciate all the beauty around us. Thank you for such an interesting & uplifting post! 🙂
John M Woloszyn says
I read these e-mails everyday. And am inspired by your writings, And I’m VERY GRATEFUL for them. I’ve read them through my grueling divorce, consequently my death (literally died twice), my rebuilding (in progress) and hopefully soon my re-birth. Sometimes, people never realize that in kindness, what seems the smallest things they do, can have a oversized impact on someone else’s life.
Lindsey J says
That’s so sad. People are in such a hurry and miss beautiful things in life. I would have loved to have heard him. Every time I pass by a musician I put a few bills in the open case. No matter how good they are- they are brave enough to put themselves and their music out there for us to enjoy. Stop and hear the music!
pradeep ivon says
Excellent reminder overall, and indeed every one of us is victim of this busyness we sometimes wear as a badge of honor. After my wife got hit by a malignant fatal brain tumor in 2018, i had to leave my busy sales job and stay home to care for all the treatment, therapy as well as domestic chores that i learnt quickly in order to serve. But now that she has gone to the Lord, i feel so empty and need something to occupy myself and overcome this tragic loss.
Hello from England. I have just returned from a visit to my daughter who lives in one of the UK’s busiest cities. I live in a village so the contrast is vast. Walking through the city I make it a point to donate and say thank you to street musicians, often young people. Their music adds to the atmosphere of the day if people would just stop for a minute to listen.
Lisa Levy says
I enjoy reading your essays and find them well-written and with great insights. I think this one about how we often get caught up in the busyness of life is very well taken. I got lucky enough to get off the treadmill, as it were, when I became an observant Jew and started to practice observing the Sabbath–meaning I spend 25 hours each week(from sundown Friday to nightfall Saturday) out of the rat race. One main goal of the Jewish Sabbath is to let go of the secular world; it’s 25 hours when you get to be with your family and friends, eat nice meals, read or take walks, play games, nap if you want to, go to synagogue to pray. It’s a 25 hour period when you do not have to pay bills, run errands, answer emails, do laundry, etc. You get to step back and just BE in the world. I cannot tell you how restorative it is. I am not trying to be preachy here. I am just saying how wonderful it is to have one day each week that lets me take some time to breathe. Most people look at being religious and see all the things I can’t do; I see it from the other way around and feel the blessing of the gift that I get every Sabbath and holiday.
Hilary Abii Asiah says
Your piece is apt! As I read line by line, I saw myself at the right, center and left of it.
Sometimes, I pause to ask myself, if there were really 24 hours a day or less than- I regret and the next day I am back to busyness, the ill of evil
Thank you for this important reminder. Multi-tasking is touted to be something special but it is the opposite. We are never really aware of any single thing. Time to choose to be present in the moment instead of being a passenger on the train of time experiencing only a blur as life flys past.