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5 Tiny Steps to Move Away from Unnecessary Busyness

Relaxing

“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.

4. Unplug.

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

About Jessica Latham

Jessica Latham is a freelance writer, translator and poet who enjoys writing about health and happiness.  Her writing has been featured on NPR radio and published in various journals.  She also writes a blog Rowdy Prisoners which features stories and interviews about people daring to live with passion and love.

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  • Great advice, Jessica! To make sure we’re not wasting a lot of time on stuff we don’t need or want in our life it really helps to become clear over our life goals. That way, we can focus our biggest efforts on what truly matters to us, and get rid of the rest. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Joan Harrison

    You are so right Jessica, when you stop and get off the merry go round things naturally become clearer. The answer we are looking for can always be found within.

  • Mary Borchers

    Lovely Post! Thank you for being so honest. Most people are so afraid to slow down. I especially liked the advice to “unplug”.

  • I totally recognize myself in your story and thank you for your good advice.
    I would also like to add how important it is (and how increadibly difficult it is) to

    JUST BE!

    By the way… Should you not worry about what those ants are doing in your house?

  • Ha! You make me laugh. Actually, it’s a good question…not only should we question what we’re so busy about, but also, what to worry about. Good news is the ants are under control.

    I’m glad you were able to relate to story. So often we can feel alone in our experiences, yet we are so connected – it can be encouraging to know others experience similar challenges.

    I also have a post from my blog about striving for mediocrity instead of perfection. Maybe you can relate to this too: http://rowdyprisoners.com/striving-for-mediocrity/?w3tc_preview=1

    Thank you for reading and commenting on my post! I’d love to hear if any of the advice is helpful to you.

  • Hi Mary. Thank you for reading the post. Why do you think people are afraid to slow down? Fear of not getting enough done? My brother and I often talk about this idea and how different cultures honor speed and activity vs. calm or slowing down. It’s very interesting.

    I included the link to my unplug project from my blog if you want ideas to try one yourself: http://rowdyprisoners.com/test-2/?w3tc_preview=1

  • Hi Joan –

    Thank you for your comments. Cheers to clarity and honoring what we already are! May we always remember, as you say, we already have the answers inside.

    I appreciate you reading the post.

  • Thanks for your comments, Patrick.

  • The limitations we place on ourselves through constant attention to social media is terrible. It leaves to check for confirmation from others on a regular basis, an almost gauge of self worth through peoples opinions so freely given behind the safety of a computer monitor.

    Unplugging should be a mandatory daily we all do for half hour or so to make sure we aren’t getting too attached to our online social feedback to guide our decisions in life.

  • Very nicely stated and very true. Reminds me of one of my posts, facebook is like icecream: http://rowdyprisoners.com/facebook-is-like-ice-cream/

    Thanks for reading this article and for offering such great comments!

  • lv2terp

    Inspiring post, thank you for sharing you story, questions, and steps, they are great!! 🙂

  • Thank you so much for taking the time to read the post. I’m happy to hear it was inspiring!

  • Burton

    Just wanted to say that I also thought it was amazing. Well written and touching. I personally have had troubles with understanding why I do what I do. Years later I am figuring it out. I wish I could have read this post earlier in my life. However this reassured me I am on the right path to doing what is important and minimizing the unimportant. Thanks.

  • Hi there,

    I really appreciate your kind words. That is great to hear you are finding a better balance to finding out what is really important in your life. We are always growing and changing and I feel this is a constant ebb and flow we experience throughout life. What are some of the things you’ve realized are necessary and important to bringing more joy to your day?

  • Razwana

    There’s sometimes a bit of fear of missing out when it comes to unplugging from social media, the telephone, etc. ‘what if on the ONE day I turn off my phone, I miss a call from x,y,z???” Hilarious but true! We try and rationalise it!

    I will definitely be switching off this weekend – if only for a day – to see how I do!

    – Razwana

  • Hi Razwana,

    I would love for you to share how your one-day weekend “experiment” turns out. Will you feel at ease or uptight? Free or alone? I experienced a lot of emotions during my long unplugged project. If you like it, sounds like it would be a great weekly ritual to start. Thanks for reading!

    Jessica

  • Luca Samson

    I have been very busy lately as I’ve been setting up a new site about different aspects of meditation. However I still cling on to simplicity in my life and always make the time for myself.
    I always do things that I enjoy, for example I enjoy my site, I do not do it for the money or any other reason than pure enjoyment and helping others.

    I think we all need time for ourselves to enjoy what we love.

  • So true, Luca! It seems when we do things because of our love and passion for it, it does not seem like a chore – there is an ease that comes from the things we genuinely want to do.

    I’m so happy to hear about your site and would love to read it. Please share if you’d like. I know I can always learn more about aspects of meditation. I’m doing more of it since I have a little one growing inside and would love your expertise.

  • Yogagurl

    Thanks! I arrived home from another hectic week of work and busyness serving everyone else but myself to find this message in my inbox. I truly believe it was the sign I needed and that I was asking for… A reminder that I matter too and a reminder that slowing down is needed to feel and deal with all the feelings we try to sweep under the rug. So today I acknowledged that I stay busy as a means to feel like I serve s purpose. Being single and childless amongst friends with families has been especially difficult to deal with over the past few years. I use busyness to hide behind the pain and anguish of feeling inadequate and alone. So thanks for the post … I’m hoping to use this as the beginning of my slowing down period and look forward to seeing where this path will lead ….(while typing this, I answered two calls from people wanting something from me… I said no… Lol) like I said, this is a new beginning ! Thanks again!

  • Razwana

    I did it! I spent 24 hours away from my phone. It helped that I was at the beach with my brother’s children and didn’t want for anything other than the sea and the sand, but still!
    Interestingly, once I’d decided to spend an entire day and night without my phone, I didn’t miss it at all. I did think I may need it in an emergency, but I’d revert to whatever we used to do without mobile phones (thankfully I didn’t have to test that).
    What a great way to unwind!

  • Hi Yogagurl,

    Isn’t it amazing when we know what we need – and – with the grace of serendipity, we receive that gentle reminder to follow what has been tugging at us all along?

    I’m so happy to hear you began to slow down for yourself. Saying “no” can initially feel so hard, but in the end, can be so freeing. I hope you find more of those slower moments throughout the week.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Hi Razwana,

    That is amazing! And what a great way to spend your day away from your phone 🙂

    I did a little experiment once, putting my phone in the trunk of my car. That way I had it in case of emergency when I was out, but I wasn’t tempted to automatically check emails, texts and updates at every traffic light. That was a fun experiment too.

    Looks like you’re onto something and this one-day commitment worked well for you! Awesome.

  • Mary Borchers

    Hi Jessica, thanks for the reply.
    I think people are sometimes afraid to slow down because they don’t want to be accused of laziness. Also some people might think that silence is bad. And they also might be afraid of looking deeper into themselves because they will not like what they see. I will definitely check out your project. Thanks!

  • Ash

    Beautiful! Thank you! I think your point about disconnecting from technology is absolutely correct … and on that note ……

  • jessica latham

    Ha ha. Hi Ash. Great comment. Thanks for reading and for taking a break from technology. Have a wonderful week.

  • jessica latham

    Great points, Mary! Isn’t it interesting that rest can be confused with laziness, silence as negative and self-knowledge too scary?! Reminds me of a great poem I read this past week – I’ll try to post it soon on my blog to share with others. All of your points are valid and create wonderful discussion. Thanks for following up and commenting.

  • Ash

    🙂 You’re most welcome. Mindfulness is a fantastic thing. I’ve been practising it for the last 6 months or so and have found it to be profound.

    How about you?

    BTW I even wrote an article called “Productivity and Mindfulness – Can they co-exist?” on my blog website called productiveinsights … you might find it interesting to read

    🙂

  • jessica latham

    Ash –

    I started seriously focusing on mindfulness in my life in 2008 doing a 10-month project with http://www.awakeningjoy.info/ that incorporated mindfulness techniques and approaches. Now it’s grown quite a bit, which is exciting.

    I also did a “consciousness cleanse” in 2010 – a lot of the exercises in the book I used focused on mindfulness as well.

    I took a look at your article. “Productivity at the expense of our mental well being or environmental balance is meaningless.” Yes! Great article and great points made. And I love the exercise of being mindful while productive – reading through the article with an intention of mindfulness was fun, and is how we should live often!

    Seems we have a lot on common on the desire to create a balanced, meaningful coexistence between living consciously and fully. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  • Ash

    Hi Jessica. Wow … You’ve done some very interesting work. Mindfulness is so amazing isn’t it … It’s like a never ending mystery that unravels itself … meandering into new sub streams all of which eventually lead you back to the source …

    There is this fantastic (free) resource called zencast.org … I have listened to about 100 of the talks on there so far … You should check it out

    Thank you so much for your kind words about the article. Much appreciated 🙂

    I just checked out the link you sent me and what’s the video for the course. As often, when it comes to matters of the spirit, I encountered ‘an interesting coincidence’.

    I have been listening to a lot of Ram Dass’ talks over the last few days and lo and behold … there were a few quotes from him on the video! 🙂

    Great speaker. His podcasts are a delight to listen to. Very good sense of humor too which is nice.

    I’ve written another article which has got more hits in the last 3 days than any other article (over the last month since I started the website) Here’s a link : http://www.productiveinsights.com/productivity-blog/2013/6/2/34-how-i-overcame-procrastination-in-3-steps-with-a-simple-thought-experiment

    Are we allowed to post links on these forums?

  • jessica latham

    Ash,

    Thanks for the information about zencast. I will check that out. Sounds like the podcasts have given you a lot of motivation and inspiration for new writing pieces.

    And I am not sure about posting links…

  • Ash

    Yes absolutely they have. The zencasts are very powerful in bringing mindfulness into daily practice (I’ve fallen off the wagon in the last few weeks) and that mindfulness brings a lot of creative inspiriation with it.

    Something so simple as being in the moment is so powerful.

  • jessica latham

    Hey Ash (I love your name by the way) –

    I think it’s interesting that you say “falling off the wagon” – not to analyze everything you say….. 🙂 But I feel like so many of us put so much pressure to stay consistent with practices.

    Honestly, we all ebb and flow in life. Sometimes we work out a bit more, eat a bit better, go to sleep earlier…I think as long as we are inspired to do something (ie. meditate when we can) that’s the best we can do.

    Often I’ve found when I tell myself I have to meditate every day, it become a chore or a hassle versus, I will meditate when I can – and I often find myself still meditating several times during that week.

    Do you agree or disagree?

  • Ash

    Thank you for your kind words 🙂 What do you love about the name Ash? BTW the full name has an interesting buddhist connection (and no I’m not a buddhist … Or I wasn’t born into a buddhist family anyway)

    I agree with your point about not putting undue pressure on oneself … But then there has to be some form of structure /discipline to ensure that one evolves / progresses spiritually or otherwise. It’s a balance I guess.

    I’ve made a commitment to myself to meditate one minute a day (yes you read that right) and that’s a discipline I think I can stick to.

    You should check out my article on the ‘streaks’ app on my website where I talk about that committment.

    Speaking of which … I just launched my first official proper newsletter and am feeling very buzzed about it. I can’t resist so I’ll put a link to it on here. Please do subscribe if you find it useful and share it with anyone who you think would benefit. It’s free.

    http://productiveinsights.createsend5.com/t/ViewEmail/t/6B4E88BF540602A2

    Do you have a website?

  • jessica latham

    I like Ash because it reminds me of the tree, and I love trees. I don’t know what you name derives from, but I like Asher, meaning happy/blessing. I guess I have been paying so much attention to names because I have a little one on the way. Such an amazing process carrying a life inside me.

    Wow, you have been busy. That’s exciting you have a newsletter.

    Yes, my site is listed in my bio: http://www.rowdyprisoners.com

  • Ash

    My heartiest congratulations!!! Having a child is the most awesomest wonderfulest fantasticest experience ever.

    It’s also equally intense 🙂

    I have a 3 year old and a 8 month old. They are gorgeous.

    I checked out the website … you write beautifully and insightfully.

    How do I subscribe to your blog?

  • Ash

    BTW Ash is short for Ashok … I was born into a Hindu family in India but happen to be named after a very famous emperor (of his time) named Ashoka who had an epiphany following a battle (that he won) and turned to buddhism. Ashoka is believed to be responsible for the spread of Buddhism from India to the various other parts of Asia such as Thailand, China etc as they exist today.

    Interesting that I am so drawn to Buddhist philosophy (which admittedly is an offshoot of Hindu philosophy anyway – it’s Hinduism without the rituals)

    Would you like to write a guest post on my blog?

  • jessica latham

    Thank you so much, Ash! And congratulations to you and your family. This is our first. My husband and I are thrilled.

    If you click on any of the posts, on the right side of the screen, it will say “rowdy prisoners loves subscribers” and there is an area you can add your email address. I’d love to have you follow along!

  • jessica latham

    I love Indian and it’s people….and food. I have several friends from various parts of India. Where are you from? My husband and I eat Indian food all the time. Actually, this morning, I was looking up a recipe for cardamon cookies! I usually have my ginger chai, but since it has so much caffeine and I don’t want that while pregnant, I’ve been just having warm cardamon, ginger milk. I thought some cookies would be a nice treat!

    You beat me to it! That is so funny that you asked me to guest post. I was going to ask you to guest post on mine too 😉 I am happy to give you my email address: (senoritamalone@hotmail.com). Email me and we can sort out specifics for guest posts.

  • Kiran D

    Nice post :).Although i know most of the things mentioned,it is important to add even the minor parts and implement them as they have a considerable impact on our lives, and also to keep repeating the actions that follow the information we already know.

  • jessica latham

    Hi Kiran,

    You are absolutely right. So much that is said has been said for hundreds, even thousands of years. I’ve discussed this before with friends – I’ve often found many similarities in various religious texts, psychology books, self-help, fiction, etc…

    Perhaps we all have our own voice, a slightly different way of saying the same thing just a little uniquely.

    Thanks so much for your comment and reiterating that even the things we already know can be helpful to implement when we’re reminded of them again and again!

  • IBikeNYC

    GOSH am I tired of everyone’s whining about how BIZ-ZEEEE they are.

    Just.
    Say.
    No.