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By the time he was 26 years old – an age when many people are still trying to figure out exactly what to do with their lives – Greg Voisen had already undergone an angiogram and experimented with biofeedback to manage his stress level. Although Voisen enjoyed a successful career as a financial consultant, his days were long, his schedule was packed and his body simply couldn’t keep up.

Worse still, as busy as he was, he never felt like he got to do the things that mattered to him. “It wasn’t until years later that I realized that busyness and stress weren’t ever going to give me the life I really wanted,” Voisen says.

Instead of experiencing the fullness that comes from making room for what really matters, Voisen just felt overwhelmed. Realizing he’d come to a crossroads, he decided to put his unwieldy to-do list aside for a while and began to think deeply about how he wanted to spend his time. The result? Voisen discovered his real passion: helping people break the cycle of busyness. Today, at 52, he leads seminars on how to “never mind the noise” of busyness and focus on what’s really important.

Voisen is one of a growing number of coaches, teachers, authors and thinkers creating a virtual cottage industry from one important realization: Being busy, which in the present moment can seem so necessary and productive, can present an insidious and potentially critical threat to both our long-term health and our quality of life.

Why We Default to Busyness

Like Voisen, many of us have fallen prey to overscheduling. Americans work more hours and take fewer vacations than any other industrialized country, and we schedule our so-called free time so tightly that even our leisure pace leaves us breathless. Why? According to Edward M. Hallowell, MD, author of the new book CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! (Ballantine, 2006), our perpetual state of being overwhelmed has become a norm of sorts. We’re convinced that being busy is fun, he writes. Being busy is a status symbol. We’re busy because we feel we must be. We’re busy because everyone else is busy.

Then, there’s the biological drive to busyness. When we’re busy, we feel a rush from our bodies flooding with adrenaline. In fact, says Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life: A 7-Step Program for Creating the Life You Want (Broadway, 1999), adrenaline can be addictive, and it is “the drug of choice” for many men and women who seem to enjoy the rush it provides. Keeping busy might give us immediate, short-term payoffs, such as feeling revved up, productive, needed and worthwhile, but if we’re not doing what’s truly most meaningful in our lives, many experts say, such harried activity can cost us dearly.

Packed to the Max

In an effort to fit more and more tasks into our already cramped lives, says Hallowell, it’s easy to create a “can’t see the forest for the trees” situation where we lose sight of our own big-picture priorities.

“Being too busy prevents people from setting their own temperature, controlling their own lives,” says Hallowell. “It does other harm as well, like increasing toxic stress, making people sick, causing accidents and errors, turning otherwise polite people rude, and reducing the general level of happiness in the population. But the greatest damage it does is that it keeps a person from what’s most important.”

The subconscious reasons we cling to busyness vary from person to person. Some of us are trying to avoid confronting difficult feelings, choices or gremlins from our past. Others of us are afraid of trying – and failing – at our biggest dreams, so we busy ourselves with present-day trifles. Still others feel obliged to keep pace with the material, career and status demands of modern life, which can feel urgent, but may lack deeper importance in the context of our personal values.

The trouble is, aside from sapping our lives of meaning and deeper satisfaction, keeping ourselves overly busy also gives rise to anxiety and stress, paving the way for an overtaxed adrenal system, depression, weight gain or infertility, among other imbalances. It also leaves us ill-equipped to make thoughtful decisions that could make our lives better.

Do Less, Be More

So, how can you stop being busy for busy’s sake and start to live more fully? The most important question to answer, says Minneapolis-based life coach Robert Rasmus, is: What do you want? Think in terms of what your heart truly longs for.

If you don’t know what you want, he suggests, give yourself the time to sit down and do a self-assessment. Ask yourself questions like: “When was I my happiest?” “What areas of my current life are most needing attention?” “If I had only a year to live, what would I change?” From there, start prioritizing more of your time, and focus in the direction of your highest choices.

“What you put your attention toward is what shows up,” says Rasmus. “Nothing beats living your life according to your values.”

For Greg Voisen, focusing on meditation practices and developing his awareness and intuition led to finding what really mattered. “When you start making decisions from your authentic self, as opposed to your ego, the busyness melts away,” he says. “You know what to do next.”

Yes, trusting yourself and your instincts can be challenging when life holds so many competing demands. But by allowing yourself the time and space to think and feel and discern what really matters, you give yourself the gift of a meaningful life. And that’s something worth getting unbusy for.

How to Overcome the Busy Addiction

As the 17th-century English poet John Dryden famously wrote in The Medal, “None are so busy as the fool and knave.” To help break free of your busy schedule and create more space in your life, ask yourself these questions:

Question: Does everything feel like a priority?
Strategy: In the classic book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change (Free Press, 2004), Stephen R. Covey recommends putting first things first. Try listing your responsibilities and activities on a grid that consists of four quadrants: important, not important, urgent and not urgent. Covey recommends we reduce the amount of time spent on urgent-but-not-important tasks and increase the amount of time devoted to important-but-not-urgent activities.

Question: Do you find yourself complaining – silently or openly – about your responsibilities and commitments?
Strategy: Practice the fine art of declining graciously. “As you start saying no, you’ll find that you have more time and space available in your calendar,” writes Cheryl Richardson in Take Time for Your Life (Broadway, 1999). “The temptation will be to immediately fill the space. . . . Give yourself the gift of just ‘being’ for a while.”

Question: Do you have trouble concentrating?
Strategy: Greg Voisen recommends daily meditation as a means for staying focused, either at the beginning or the end of the day, for five, 10 or 15 minutes: “Meditation is the greatest awareness tool. It brings you back to focus, and then you know what to do next.” If you have trouble giving yourself that time, you might intentionally practice doing nothing. Richardson suggests sitting quietly in five-minute intervals, adding a minute each day until you can sit comfortably for 20 or 30 minutes. If it helps, imagine a place where you’ve been deeply relaxed and allow your mind to rest there. “This simple exercise will teach you how to make peace with being – instead of always doing,” she says.

Question: Do you wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts racing through your head?
Strategy: You might be running on adrenaline, says Richardson in Life Makeovers: 52 Practical and Inspiring Ways to Improve Your Life One Week at a Time (Broadway, 2000). To reduce your reliance on adrenaline, restore your energy and get your fuel from a healthier source, she offers these starting points: Breathe deeply, take a good multivitamin, give up caffeine, get regular exercise, schedule some downtime, and change your work habits by checking email only once a day, turning the ringer off on your phone or clearing your desk so you can work on only one thing at a time.

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