“Busy” Isn’t a Badge of Honor

Recently, I found myself holding a cheeseburger in my left hand, balancing my phone between my right shoulder and ear, and typing with right hand in a gorgeous restaurant overlooking Palm Beach. Between occasional bites of my burger, I had to remind myself that I’d been flown to this gorgeous resort to lead a retreat on avoiding burnout.

Do As I Say, Not as I Do

My team and I had recently learned that a profile about me and my business was coming out in Marie Claire, so we were all hard at work creating a new website to reflect a range of new services. The challenge was, we didn’t know when the piece would come out. Like someone whose partner is about to propose, I knew it could happen at any time. I had lots of anxious/excited energy to manage, and I wanted to be ready.

At the posh resort my clients had selected for the retreat, the poolside staff kept teasing me, “Brought your computer again, I see?” I was quick to share that if I were going to be looking longingly at the beach over my laptop screen, I’d rather do it poolside than from my hotel room. Still, the comments struck a nerve. Their affable remarks had a clear subtext: “Seriously, lady? You’re in paradise, and you’d rather sit under an umbrella burning your thighs with an overheated laptop than play in the ocean?”

Point taken. As someone who describes the beach as her “happy place”, I felt like I was in a real pickle. Here I was overlooking white sands and clear ocean while operating under an ever-changing deadline to have the website live before the article came out.

In retrospect, at that point we were 95% certain that the piece wasn’t coming out until the following week. My urgency likely had less to do with that 5% chance that the article would get posted unexpectedly than the momentum I had from working 10–12 hour days. But in that moment, I couldn’t slow down enough to recognize that adrenaline was the culprit rather than rational thinking.

My Busy Badge of Honor

Being busy can feel like the default of being a professional woman.

A friend recently shared the observation that she was moving so quickly, it was like the world was blurring around her. She said she wanted to believe she was moving forward, but she could’ve just as easily been running in circles.

When I asked a client how she was enjoying a beautiful sunny afternoon, she lamented that most days, she’s “garage to garage” — pulling her car out of her driveway and into the office parking structure without any meaningful contact with the outside world.

When you ask friends how they’re doing, what’s their auto pilot response? “Busy.” In The Disease of Being Busy, Omar Safi articulates this challenge as the “dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease.” He asks, “When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings,” defined by our to do lists and busy-ness?”

Left unchecked, my desires to be productive, effect social change, and feel needed and important could easily combine to turn me into a workaholic, into someone who’s always “busy” and constantly exhausted.

In preparing for the Marie Claire piece, I saw it happen. One of my best friends from when I managed a political campaign told me, “This is the most tired I’ve ever seen you.” Coming from a woman who supported me while I was working 10–16 hour days for 8 months, so stressed that I cracked three teeth from daytime jaw clenching (I wore a bite guard at night), this was serious.

Most tired ever?!?! I responded to her remark with appropriate horror, to which she replied, “Maybe you were wearing more makeup then?” As much as I expressed indignation, there was also something about her comment that felt good. Warped though it was, it felt like a badge of honor that I was working so hard that my physical body was again showing the signs.

And it didn’t stop. Even after the piece came out and I could’ve (should’ve) taken a break, I found it difficult not to continue working with the same fervor.

The Science

As I read the book The Happiness Track, I had another “ruh roh” moment when I saw the definition of work addiction: “the tendency to work excessively and compulsively.” The book’s author, Dr. Emma Seppälä, describes the dopamine (happy feelings!) the brain releases from “responding to that one extra e-mail, getting that additional project out of the way, or checking one thing off the to-do list.”

Well shit.

Dr. Seppälä just made it all too clear: the work surrounding the Marie Claire piece had created so many bursts of happy feelings, it prompted me to subconsciously keep my momentum up when the project was over because I wanted more. It was helpful to hear the science behind this intensity.

My colleague Kate always reminds me, “Time is the release valve.” Often the deadlines we’re fighting are internal to our company or even self-created. Had I slowed down, I might have realized that no one was hitting “refresh” on www.gowlandllc.com, waiting with baited breath to see the new services. In practice, no one outside of the team even knew (or, frankly, cared) that I was planning to re-launch the website and change the business model. Given the 5% probability the article would come out the day of my beach burger, I could’ve just enjoyed the beach.

My Process

I’m trying to stand my own workaholic tendencies on their head. The Sunday after my beach burger, I decided I wouldn’t work until I got on the plane home that evening. I spent the day with my aunt and literally stood on my own head on a paddleboard under the gorgeous Florida sun.

Now that the Marie Claire piece has come out, I’ve been deliberate about having brunch with my niece before she goes back to school and spending quality time with my grandmother. I’ve enjoyed some delightful summer fiction and vegged out on the final season of The Good Wife. Sometimes it’s harder for me not to work than it is to work — it requires me to overcome the default of peeking at my email or sending one last text. But having just awoken from a 1.5 hour nap on a leisurely Sunday, I can tell you it’s getting easier.

To paraphrase what I told my workshop participants in Palm Beach just hours after my ridiculous working lunch: this shit is hard. It’s not easy to step away when you value the work you do and your identity is connected to your success. I could tell you to do as I say, not as I do, but I think it’s more valuable to recognize that avoiding burnout and maintaining healthy boundaries isn’t like flipping a switch. It’s a sometimes messy, often imperfect ongoing process.

If your life’s a blur, your days are garage-to-garage, you’re surrounded by electronics on the beach, or you just want to slow down, take comfort. I’m right there with you.