Are You 'Crazy-Busy' or Is Your Life Just Full?

This woman might be too busy to eat for a number of reasons, some positive, some negative. Busy-ness isn't always a negative state. . (Photo: Estrada Anton/Shutterstock)

When someone asks how you are, is your reflexive response "So crazy-busy!" before you even think about how you really feel? If so, you might want to step back and ask yourself if that's really true.

I'm not talking about people who are busy through no choice of their own. There are plenty of people who work multiple jobs and only get five hours of sleep because that's what they have to do in order to keep a roof over their heads and their family fed.

But if you're not busy due to dire life circumstance, it's important to remember that your busy-ness is a choice. Megan Wycklendt wrote in the Washington Post about thinking this idea through: "When I complain about how busy I am, it is as if someone put all these things on my plate without my approval. When in fact, I make my life the way it is. I chose to be in school. I chose to work three jobs. I chose to pack my weeks with plans and travel whenever possible. The question is: Is it all worth it? If it is, be grateful and proud of everything you do. If it’s not, make a change."

Challenge yourself: Are you really that busy?

We like to think we are, mostly because American culture glorifies it; being busy equals success because it indicates that you are in demand. But this idea isn't universal; in Sweden, for example, staying late at work doesn't indicate that you're a hard worker, but the opposite. If you work 60 hours instead of 40, the perception is that you're inefficient. This is just one small example of how our culture impacts how we think of ourselves in relationship to our work. Are you just saying you're busy because it makes you sound good?

Perhaps you say you're busy because you're feeling stressed or rundown; in that case, tell the truth. Don't cancel plans with friends because you're "busy" — tell them you need some down time to take a quiet hike, or that you need a night at home to make healthy food for the next week. Telling people you're busy when they want to make plans subtly implies that they aren't busy. Saying that you can't make it to an event because you need to catch up on sleep is more specific, and it lets your friend into your life in a way that "I'm busy" pushes them away.

Consider whether your 'busy' is positive or negative

Busy-ness isn't automatically good or bad. This is where mindfulness comes in: How does your level of life activity make you feel? Is it a mix of some anxiety but more positive energy and excitement about getting stuff done? Or is it mostly just a mix of nerves and terror?

If you're not sure, taking small moments throughout your day to check in with yourself will help you figure out the answers. Check out the video below for how to use those minutes for mindfulness.

Another way to figure out how your busyness is truly impacting you is to check in with yourself after a busy day. As you are lying in bed, relaxing to go to sleep, how do you feel? Tired but fulfilled, or exhausted and run down? This can give you perspective on how your busy life is affecting you.

If your busy is a choice, and you are mostly enjoying it, per Wychlendt's advice above, be "grateful and proud." Again, when asked (or asking yourself) be specific about what you are doing and feeling. It's much more interesting as well as honest, and reminds you what's important in your life.

Are you busy or just overstimulated and distracted?

woman reading and drinking coffee
Sometimes you need to avoid distractions like electronic devices so you can focus on what you want to do. (Photo: Vadim Georgiev/Shutterstock)

It's easy to feel busy even if you're not getting much work done. That's one big difference between being alive today and during any other time in history. There are definitely more distractions via our ever-present internet-connected devices, and the pings, dings and buzzing notifications. (One easy way to fix that is to turn them all off. I only see mine when I pick up my phone and turn it on so I'm not constantly pulled away from my focus.)

So your brain might feel very busy if you are constantly online, chatting with friends or coworkers and liking friends' posts on Facebook, replying to tweets, and posting Instagrams — all while getting work done. If you discover that really you are only moderately busy, but filling up your time with distracting, stimulating electronic media, it's worth asking why. Are you trying to avoid thinking about a certain subject or subjects? Why are you so uncomfortable being not-busy/distracted? If being constantly online makes you ultimately feel anxious, why are you doing it?

All of these questions are just a way to get to the bottom of your own version of busy and how it's affecting your life. They are not a judgment or prescription.

It's worth remembering that human beings have, throughout history, had busy lives (or not), depending on their personalities and circumstances. In the Tudor era in Great Britain, the sheer volume of work that needed to be done to keep a large farm running during the spring, summer and autumn was daunting. Nobody can say, after watching "Tudor Monastery Farm," that the people of the 1500s weren't busy. So next time you're rushing around, remind yourself that sometimes, being busy is just part of the human condition, and take a break when you can.