Are You Addicted To Busyness?

Lissa RankinHow many times have you heard variations on this conversation?

Person A: How’s it going?
Person B: I’m insanely busy. You know, the usual.
Person A: Yeah, me too. I’m scheduling into 2015 already.
Person B: I get it. Haven’t taken a real vacation in over a year.
Person A: Well, gotta count our blessings for being busy, right?
Person B: Amen.

It seems to me that we wear busyness like a badge of honor. I’m busy, therefore I’m important and valuable, therefore I’m worthy. And if I’m not busy, forget it. I don’t matter.

Recently, I hired Anne Davin to help me run my business, and because she’s much kinder to my schedule than I am, I find myself with a lot more free time than I’ve had in decades. Anne reins me in so I don’t bulldoze full steam ahead into exciting new projects that, while thrilling and fulfilling, will invariably wind up over committing and depleting me and overworking and depleting my staff. So lately, I have a lot of days on my calendar labeled “Succulent Space Day,” which basically means I’m free to do…whatever.

Because it looks to the outside world like I achieve a lot, people assume I’m insanely busy. But the reality is that, because I have such a great support team, both in my professional life and my personal life, I have a lot of down time, and this down time leaves me admittedly uncomfortable. In September, my whole month was blocked for a PBS station tour that got postponed until December (check listings for my public television special here). So when that tour got postponed, I had loads of free time on my calendar. So what did I do? I filled up the time by writing a 124,000 word book that I started and finished in seven weeks.

I guess you could say I’m more than a little uncomfortable with down time.

The Addiction of Busyness

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes about numbing behaviors that we use as armor against vulnerability. And lest you think numbing doesn’t apply to you because you’re not hooked on cocaine or alcohol, she clarifies by saying, “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

Oy. Busted.

While we shame people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, somehow, as a culture, we’ve normalized- even praised- busyness addiction. But are we really doing ourselves any favors by staying so busy?

Because I suddenly have more down time than I’ve ever had in my adult life, I find myself faced with the time to reflect upon my life. And facing my life isn’t always so pretty.

Facing The Truth

When I get off the hamster wheel of busyness and achievement, I’m forced to notice what comes up for me when I’m not busy. (Tweet-worthy!) After I work through the realization that I could be working on my next book or I could be writing the sales page for the program I’m launching with Rachel Naomi Remen or I could be doing [fill the “there’s always more” blank,] I realize that none of those things must get done today. What is left in the silence are the things I don’t necessarily want to look at.

Like my flailing marriage.

Or the fact that I feel shame around how I’m missing out on some of Siena’s sweetest childhood moments because my job requires travel.

Or how uncomfortable I am with feelings of boredom.

Or how afraid I am of being ordinary.

Or how I tend to feel unworthy and unlovable unless I’m overachieving.

Or the fact that my mother isn’t getting any younger and I don’t get to see her very often, and I wonder if I’m unconsciously pulling away from her because I’m terrified of losing her one day and am practicing what Brené would call “dress-rehearsing disaster.”

Or how uncomfortable I am with realizing that, although a lot of people online care what I have to say, I’m not very good at cultivating and sustaining lasting relationships with real people who really know me and love me.

Or how restless I feel when I’m not making myself feel more worthy by doing something to help others.

Or how lonely I often feel, even when I’m surrounded by a crowd of people.

Oy. Yet again. I’ve been using my busyness to numb the feelings of vulnerability that accompany the unsettling truths about my life. Busted, yet again.

Making Peace With Inaction

My friend and mentor Martha Beck spends about four hours every day meditating lately. I can barely make it through twenty minutes of meditation without checking my watch and counting the minutes until it’s over, so I can’t even begin to relate to four hours of total inaction. Who would I be if I wasn’t busy accomplishing stuff? Who would I be if I was okay with doing nothing for hours on end? And even scarier, what truths would I have to face that I can effectively avoid facing when I’m crazy busy?

I have experienced moments that touch the kind of peace Martha often experiences these days, those moments when you really understand what the Bible meant when it describes the peace that passeth all understanding. It’s compelling, that kind of peace. It draws you in, makes you crave more, and jolts you awake so that you don’t want to miss out on life by filling yourself with crazy busyness.

But then, like a greased watermelon, you lose it. And the pain of its loss tempts you to fill up your schedule again so you’re not faced with the longing of what you have touched but can’t sustain.

What’s The Solution?

So what’s the cure for busyness addiction? Brené prescribes the care and feeding of our spirits. It’s not that passionate action is always wrong, just like a sacred morsel of chocolate isn’t always a numbing behavior. Sometimes these behaviors soothe us. More often, they’re a way to hide. How can you tell the difference? When we consider what motivates our numbing behaviors, Brené invites us to ask the following questions. “Are my choices comforting and nourishing my spirit, or are they temporary reprieves from vulnerability and difficult emotions ultimately diminishing my spirit? Are my choices leading my Wholeheartedness, or do they leave me feeling empty and searching?”

She concludes with this:

“Spirituality emerged as a fundamental guidepost in Wholeheartedness. Not religiosity but the deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to one another by a force greater than ourselves- a force grounded in love and compassion. For some of us, that’s God, for others it’s nature, art, or even human soulfulness. I believe that owning our worthiness is the act of acknowledging that we are sacred. Perhaps embracing vulnerability and overcoming numbing is ultimately about the care and feeding of our spirits.”

There she goes again. Oy.

Are You Numbing Yourself With Busyness?

Be honest with yourself. What might you be hiding behind your “to do” list? How might you care for and feed your spirit more so you’re not so inclined to fill the void with busyness?

Trying to find peace with slowing down,


Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself.  She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself.  Lissa blogs at and also created two online communities – and She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.
  • Tracy E.

    This article is brilliant and I often think about this subject. I grew up in a house where my parents fought all the time so instead of turning to drugs or bad behavior as a child I worked. I started babysitting for a lot of neighbors when I was 12 and that was my peace. What I didn’t realize at the time was beings as busy as I was, was keeping me from really feeling those scary feelings. Now at 44 and recently single, all my friends are married with kids and they are so busy. I’ve never seen children have so many activities at once and no one seems to have much down time except for me. I owned a cafe two years ago and I was extremely busy but now my life as a personal chef has really given so much uncomfortable time to really see that busyness is just trying to fill a void. I believe that this understanding is leading me to finding the balance that I’ve needed for 32 years. Thanks for a great article, I hope people realize not only that their busyness is hurting them but that teaching children this same practise will only make them feel not enough if they don’t continue the bad habit.

    • Lauri Shaw

      I have to say something here as I dont see it as a “negative” to being busy,
      I am guilty of feeling better if am busy. I was raised by a single mother with 5 kdis in the 70’s , I have a great role model of a strong independent woman who managed work and kids and wasnt perfect but did a darn good job. I have always been busy, a working bee I have been called. I get personal satisfaction when I get things done,that makes me feel wonderful ! However, there is a huge difference in the “getting things done” :. are you getting “things done cus you have to” or are you “getting things done because you want to”. I have had so much happen in my personal life past 25 yrs, that I know there is a huge difference. It is far more rewarding personally to get things done when “you want to”
      . I have 3 kids, all different, and each one is beautiful in their own way. Some kids like to be busy , some not, and that is what is life, we are all different. It is a beautiful thing 🙂

      • The Daily Love

        So true, Lauri, all the different personality types make for a beautiful life and beautiful world!! We think Lissa is talking about using tasks as a distraction from or avoidance of feelings being stuffed down. Certainly there are kids, and adults too, who just like to keep busy, and there is nothing wrong with that at all!! Thank you for reading and sharing!!
        -Team TDL

    • The Daily Love

      Tracey, thank you so much for sharing your story here. We love that you are beginning to find that balance in life. Sending our LOVE!!
      -Team TDL

  • Arti Karna

    Brilliant article. How can you tell if a behavior is numbing or soothing?

    The best way is to stop it and see what happens.
    If you stop the busyness- even for 10-40kjnutes- and your body feels anxious, restless less, your mind spins….. You can be sure your behavior – in this case busyness- is a numbing tool.

    Gary Zukav talks about this. When your behavior is from a place of passion and fulfillment stopping I won’t create pain.

    • The Daily Love

      Great info, Arti!! Thank you so much for sharing with the community!!
      -Team TDL

  • alsingingteacher

    Lissa, I feel like you have just read my ‘mail’. Everything you said resonates. Thank you!

    • The Daily Love

      Alsingingteacher, thank you for reading! Its awesome to know that you feel the connection here! Sending love!
      -Team TDL

  • sherry hensel

    Lissa, Your honesty and genuineness is an amazing gift that helps make it safer for others to bare their true selves. Thank you!

    • The Daily Love

      Thank you for reading, Sherry! We’re glad to know that you feel safe here <3
      -Team TDL

  • Diana

    Thank you!

  • Sarah Stark

    Hello, Lissa! You know, I read a lot of articles from The Daily Love and other sites like Positively Positive. And nearly every article I read touches me, inspires me, and wakes me up even more. But, there was something about this article you wrote that just struck me in a big way, even more than a lot of other things I’ve read in a while. I think it was your genuine honesty about your life, as some of the others below have stated too. But even further, I think some of us that are striving to move on to the next big thing in our life feel like we have to be perfect to do that. That’s not the case though. We don’t have to be anything but ourselves, even if that might be messy and not altogether sometimes. Thank you for sharing and inspiring us with each and every piece that you write! It is appreciated!