The other day I asked my husband: “What did we do in the mornings before?” I was referring to those days when we didn’t have phones or laptops to open as soon as we wake up. He paused and thought, “ I don’t know. I think I just listened to the radio.”
It is near impossible to remember a time when we were less busy, bored even, when we stood at the bus stop and just stared at a cloud instead of a phone.
I am not saying anything new. The shelves of my local bookstore are lined with books about slowing down, finding purpose, doing less, finding your “why.” But it bears asking again: Do we all need to be so busy?
At schools we are taught that you can’t work hard enough. Here in Singapore, students work at school all day, then many go to tutoring and then home for a further 2-3 hours of homework. I have had students tell me that their parents think reading is a waste of time, and not productive. What is often being rewarded is the doing, not the learning. We are being trained to perform, work hard, show up, and prove our worth through what we do, not who we are.
We feel guilty when we are sick, we wake up and run from task to task, apps tell us to do more, more steps, and even Duolingo doesn’t let you take a day off. And apps that help students learn to spell keep prompting them to do more quizzes even if they got them all correct the first time.
There is a gospel of endless work and we are all attending the church. The chorus of do more, do better, don’t stop, echoes in our minds all day long, an incessant chatter. There is always more to be done, emails to send, Instagram to post, social events to attend, surfaces to be cleaned, books to read, exercise to do. We end up aligning our sense of self-worth to our productivity.
We feel a sense of failure if we haven’t read that book, seen that show, or watched that film. We are cramming in all the things and doing them in plain sight so everyone can hear about how busy we are.
How often have you met up with a friend and heard the common refrain “ Ugh, I am so busy!” While I sympathize, especially with teachers, I also wonder how much of that is a choice. A subconscious desire to fill up all our time with busyness.
And how often have you heard someone act guilty that they did nothing all morning, “I got absolutely nothing done!”
Why are we doing instead of being?
And when is enough enough?
Our brains are habit machines, influenced by forces around us but we can cultivate new habits of mind and teach our brains to be healthier and more balanced. We don’t need to be stuck in overdrive if we change the habit. It is hard to ignore the message from the world that we need to do more and do better than we are right now. That if we just did more we would be better people. That we aren’t good enough the way we are.
There is an art to doing less. We are human beings, not human doings.
What if we are enough? What if our self-worth was based on who we are and not what we do?
We learned to be this busy, this overwhelmed, to never say no, and we can also re-learn a new way to live with more space and lightness of being. The art of doing less is the art of paying attention, growing awareness, and nurturing the art of pausing and taking a breath.
Stop to start.
One of my new mottos in helping my clients slow down is to stop, just for a brief moment and then start again. In that pause lies discovery, awareness, and breath.
Start small. Set a timer for 3 mins once a day and just breathe. Listen to your breath as it enters and leaves your body. And when you open your eyes pay close attention to what you see, smell, hear, and touch. Notice your food, really taste it. Put your hand on your heart and feel it beating.
Find some peace. Wild peace. For is it not an act of wildness and rebellion to stop for a while?
The peace of wild things
When despair for the world grows in meBy Wendell Berry
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Thank you for reading. A lot of ideas I have come from things I read and listen to. Katherine May’s substack and the Healthy Minds app were most helpful in writing this. Please click to subscribe so you never miss a post.