It was senior year of college. My friend and I were walking home from squash practice and she asked me what I'd been up to that day.
I started with my overnight shift as an EMT and ambulance driver. Then, I told her about my early morning classes, followed by the long bus ride to an even longer day at my internship. I went on to talk about the other class I attended, and how I stopped to grab a quick bite to eat before making my way to squash practice.
She stopped me.
"Lindsay, I think you're addicted to doing things."
I laughed. At the time, I didn't fully understanding the gravity of the problem. Years later, although the activities have changed, the addiction -- or whatever it is -- certainly hasn't. And the struggle to keep it under control can sometimes feel very real.
Is Busyness an Addiction?
How many of you out there wrestle with the urge to jam-pack your schedule? You might crave free time, but that white space on your calendar can actually induce anxiety.
Some people call this "chaos addiction." It's not an official diagnosis -- and, frankly, the word "addiction" seems a little heavy to me. Busyness isn't a chemical, nor is it even a specific act. My interpretation is that this "addiction" is more an expression of anxiety or compulsive behavior.
This feeling might seem familiar to you if ...
- You feel "at your best" when you're at your busiest.
- When you do find yourself doing nothing, you feel guilty for not being measurably productive.
- You like when people point out how busy you are.
- You have trouble distinguishing the importance of time spent with loved ones, for example, over time spent checking things off the list.
I want to make a careful distinction here: This isn't the same as being a "workaholic." It's not that we feel the urge to fill up our free time with work. Instead, we want to fill it with stuff -- playing in a softball league, helping out a friend with her latest app idea, grabbing coffee with our middle school friend's sister's boyfriend who just moved into town ... you get the picture.
In 2007, Psychologist Dr. Keith Lee wrote a book about his own and others' experiences with chaos addiction, called Addicted to Chaos: The Journey from Extreme to Serene. The description reads,
In a culture where the 'extreme theme' has become the norm, people are increasingly seduced into believing that intensity equals being alive. This type of life may produce heart-pounding excitement, but the absence of this addictive energy can bring about withdrawal, fear, and restlessness that is unbearable."
Dr. Lee isn't alone in thinking perennial busyness can be detrimental. Others have theorized that it serves as an effective escape, or a way to numb yourself -- hence the comparison to an addiction.
Are You Falling Into the 'Busy' Trap?
We live in a culture that celebrates being crazy busy: "Western society puts a high value on being busy," wrote Dr. Christiane Northup, a women's health expert and New York Times best-selling author. "We are conditioned to believe that being busy equates to being good, worthy, and successful."
One way people justify the addiction? By humblebragging about just how busy they are. We've all encountered this type of bragging: It's that modest, even self-deprecating rundown of how much someone did or has to do, with the underlying purpose of drawing attention to how accomplished they are.
In his article for Harvard Business Review, renowned business leader Greg McKeown calls it "The More Bubble," and argues society has granted us permission to be proud of it.
"This bubble is being enabled by an unholy alliance between three powerful trends: smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism," he explained. "The result is not just information overload, but opinion overload. We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we 'should' be doing."
"In the process, we have been sold a bill of goods: that success means being supermen and superwomen who can get it all done. Of course, we back-door-brag about being busy: it’s code for being successful and important," he went on to suggest.
Where does the "supermen and superwomen" imperative come from? In the business world, it often comes from the cultural expectations of high achievement. As McKeown explains, it also comes from the impression we get that everyone is doing tons of cool stuff all the time.
It's an interesting take: Is our "addiction" to chaos and busyness driven more by habit and boredom -- even shame?
Whatever it is, the busy humblebrag is just a coping mechanism. Most of us aren't genuinely proud of our chaotic lives ... we just hide behind the reverence every time we fail to break the cycle. And while being ambitious (to some degree) is obviously a great thing, it's important that we don't allow these cultural expectations to push us to the point of burnout.
Are you "addicted" to being busy? How do you cope? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.
Originally published Apr 11, 2016 6:00:00 AM, updated June 10 2021