“It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?” ~Henry David Thoreau
I’m sitting on my porch watching the line of ants trail up the wall until the black line above me starts to fade into the roof. I wonder what they think about.
Do they question the busyness of their tiny lives? Are they determined to get somewhere, or do they just focus on each tiny step forward? Do they fear the long road ahead?
I remembered learning from my mother—when my sister and I were homeschooled in third grade—about ants’ inability to see with their eyes. I remember my mother telling me that ants see through their sense of smell.
In order to better learn how they saw, my mother placed small pieces of homemade brownies around the house and covered our eyes with blindfolds. Hungry and determined, my sister and I scrambled around the house on all fours, sniffing for our hidden treasure.
While I am still grateful for this lesson my mother taught me about ants, I am starting to recognize a more important lesson that has taken a bit longer to learn.
In high school I spent countless hours with my head down studying and using my hands for various volunteer organizations. In college I worked tirelessly from class to work to home.
Little did I know I was just like the ants marching toward some destination, but I was blind as to where I was going and why.
It wasn’t until I reached complete burnout in my young professional career that I really started taking a look at the time I spent staying busy and getting things done. I had to take a step back and look at what I was doing with my time.
In my younger years I could push through mild illnesses to finish term papers and tests, so I thought this would be the case with my career.
But long hours of keeping busy at work and extracurricular activities turned into days, weeks, months, and years until my body forced me to stop.
I suffered a neck injury that kept me from my job. In search of the answer as to how I injured my neck, I went from doctor to doctor and they told me the injury was merely overwork, not enough rest, and too much stress. The doctors simply directed me to stop being so busy, something that is much easier said than done.
Since the injury kept me from work, chores, exercise, and most of my demanding activities, I faced the startling realization that I had to slow down. I had to start questioning why I was keeping myself so busy.
I discovered that if I stayed busy I could ignore the pain I felt of not being good enough. I recognized that if I continued to do things, I thought I would like myself more. I recognized that I didn’t love myself for just being me.
That injury saved my life. It made me question why I was busy.
I still have to come back to Thoreau’s question: What am I busy about? What are we all busy about?
First, ask: What am I doing in the day that does not serve me? Do I need to spend three hours every weekend cleaning the house or can my family divide, conquer, and clean in only one hour?
Do I need to spend two hours each day updating my social media status or can I update my profile once a week? What am I willing to sacrifice for internal sanity and calm?
Second, ask: Why do I do all that I do? You might be shocked to see that you cling to a number of superfluous tasks for money, pride, power, or recognition.
Third, ask: What would happen if I stopped doing this? Clearly, if you abruptly quit your job you might face immense challenges. Maybe start by identifying something small to erase from your over-packed day.
Be as specific as writing down each hour in your day to see where you spend most of your time and what you can remove from your day. You might surprise yourself when you see how much television you watch or how much time you spend driving around to do errands.
Tiny Steps to Move away from Unnecessary Busyness
1. Challenge yourself to take a few minutes to stretch your legs or to close your eyes and concentrate on slowing down your breathing.
Clearing your head and slowing down your heart rate will allow for clearer thinking, planning, and decision-making.
2. Take a step back and look at your life from another perspective, as if you were a friend or a colleague looking at it.
It can help you let go of emotional attachments and see why you are hanging onto pointless tasks and activities that once appeared significant.
3. Pay attention to your dreams.
Besides my strong advice to take a nap everyday (something we should continue to do no matter how old we are) our dreams can be indicators of many things in our lives if we slow down to recognize what they are telling us.
Limiting use of computers and cell phones can open up many more hours of free time, creativity, and relaxation.
5. Allow yourself to feel and be mindful.
Do you feel tension in your shoulders? Are you clenching your jaw?
When we are busy, we forget to feel what’s going on with our own bodies. Let us not be the ants, blind to our own lives, oblivious to what’s in front of us.
Let us continue to question why we “do.” There are some things that are important to “do” in life, but there are also times when it’s important to just “be.”
It is up to us to take more breaks in our busy days and really ask, why am I doing this? Does it matter?
Tonight I decided to stop working a bit early. I did not respond to all the emails in my inbox. Instead I asked myself what I want to do tonight and why.
I spent my evening reliving my childhood and made a fresh batch of brownies. I savored each bite knowing there is really nothing left for me to do but sit back and watch the trail of ants.
Photo by Tomas Sobek