3 Ways To Avoid The “Busy Mom” Trap

For the last week everyone’s been talking about “everybody’s so busy” syndrome, sparked by a NYT piece titled ‘The Busy Trap’. It reminded me of a post I wrote back in 2009, called “Do you suffer from ‘busy-itis‘?” From my post:

There are some mothers I know who claim to be so chronically over-run with items on their to-do list that I sometimes wonder: how is it even possible to have so much to do, not just sometimes, but constantly? If you were unhappy with your level of busy-ness six months ago, why are you still at that same level?

Re-reading that post after three years, I had to laugh: I really had a bee in my bonnet over the whole “busy” issue, didn’t I? Part of it, I think, was that I was starting to feel some external pressure to “busy-up” my life.

Which is silly, right? I was already running a business, raising five children and caring for my home. Where on earth would I fit more activity…and why would I want to?

Three years after I wrote my original “busy-itis” piece, I’ve fought my share of busy battles and have figured out where some of that pressure comes from – and how to resist it. Here are three of my hard-won pieces of advice:

1. Differentiate between “busy” and “productive.”

I can be in motion all day long, and at the end of the day have nothing to show for it. By contrast, I can sit down for a super-focused hour and knock seven things off my to-do list. I call the first kind of busy-ness “spastic wheel-spinning” because I jump from activity to activity, fueled by anxiety, never settling on any one thing long enough to make headway.

The thing about spastic wheel spinning is it takes up a LOT of time, and can make you feel very busy indeed. And while I think the spastic wheel-spinning stage can be a natural part of the work cycle, for me it’s usually a sign that I need to step away for a while.

Maybe I need to rest my mind and energize my body by taking a brisk walk. Maybe I need to put pen to paper and make a physical list of all the things rattling around in my head. Maybe I need a change of scenery. Maybe I need to paint a rainbow with my daughter’s water colors.

One thing is for sure: once I start feeling anxious, like I have a million things to do and am circling around them all but can’t land on one, I definitely need to stop whatever it is I’m trying to do. There’s just no point in being “busy” if I’m not actually doing anything.

2. Avoid the knee-jerk “sure!”

You know how sometimes saying “yes” seems like a good idea at the time? That rummage sale you said you’d head up in the fall? That visit you promised in the middle of your favorite summer festival? Then the date approaches – or you get two meetings into the committee you signed up for – and you’re kicking yourself, wondering why you didn’t think it all through.

I’ve definitely been guilty of committing to things that I later regretted, and it’s much more awkward and difficult to extract yourself after you’ve given the “yes”. I’m finding that a 48-hour waiting period is really helpful in figuring out whether or not I can take something on.

I try to consider all the factors: sure, I can technically fit that in, but do I really want to? What might the ripple effect be on the rest of my schedule? Will I have to give another part of my life short shrift to make it fit? Is the tradeoff worthwhile?

It’s not always possible to wait a full 48-hours before saying “yes” or “no” to an opportunity, but almost nothing is such an emergency that you have to sign on right away. Give yourself at least an hour – especially if it’s a big or recurring commitment – and take some time to sit and reflect on what saying “yes” will really mean.

3. Consider your priorities and values first.

Yes, your neighbor’s Save the Kittens silent auction is a worthy cause, but that doesn’t mean it has to be your cause. The world is full of organizations, charities, fundraisers, committees, and volunteer opportunities, but you cannot be involved in each one.

Likewise, the world is full of opportunities for your child to perform, play, learn, and wow you with his brilliance, but you cannot take advantage of them all.

When you make choices based on your own priorities (not anyone else’s), you can shape a life based on what really matters to you. And that’s the happiest and most authentic kind of life to lead.

A note on kids’ activities: just because karate or drama is your child’s passion, that doesn’t mean it has to be your passion, too. It’s really fine to miss a soccer game here and there. Or to decline to sew the costumes for the ballet recital.

By all means, support your child’s dreams where and how you are able, but don’t feel bad if you’re the mom who drops him off at the door for practice and picks him back up when it’s over. And don’t feel guilty if all you can manage is signing the permission form and arranging a ride. And please, don’t feel bad if you tell your child you can’t squeeze in another activity this season.

In the end, what really matters is that you create a joyful, functional home that supports your values. Sometimes that might mean coaching your daughter’s t-ball team, and sometimes it might mean opting for quiet evenings at home.

Because when it comes to a happy, productive, meaningful life? Being “busy” is not a requirement.

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