Are you addicted to being busy? Or do you just love getting things done? How to tell the difference

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This one goes out to all of the list lovers out there.

You know who you are. The one who gets supreme satisfaction from checking boxes and running a nice, thick black line through the items on your to-do list. (You may love crossing to-dos off so much that you’ve been known to add stuff to your list that you technically already did, just so you can mark it as ‘done.’)

There’s something viscerally satisfying about getting things done. It feeds our human need for achievement and purpose. It’s normal to want to accomplish things.

But, like most things in life, a little bit of a good thing can quickly morph into too much of a bad thing, if you’re not careful.

I’ve noticed that the line between “loving getting things done” and “being addicted to busyness” is very easy to get muddled, and a lot of my clients have struggled with how to tell the difference.

I hear these kinds of questions a lot: “Is it OK that I love checking boxes this much? Or is the need to check boxes something I should let go of?” and “Is being busy always a bad thing, or is this just part of who I am?”

So are you a healthy lover of productivity? Or a “busy junkie” who needs help? I’ve got 3 questions to help you figure out where you fall on the spectrum.

COMPULSION VS. CHOICE

Question #1: Do you control it, or does it control you?

I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist, nor am I an addiction expert, but I (like most of us) understand that addiction often boils down to compulsion.

You can’t stop doing something, even if you wanted to. You feel out of control and powerless to make a change.

This may sound dramatic, especially when we’re talking about busyness, not alcoholism or drug addiction, but I think the same general rule can apply here.

I’ve coached a lot of people who’ve said they physically cannot relax until they’ve checked everything off of their to-do list.

Even if they put the list down and try to do nothing, they can’t “turn off” or tolerate inaction. The way they describe the need to get things done feels more like they’re being held hostage by their to-do list than like something they feel good about or that brings them joy.

In other words, the need to get things done has become a “have to,” not a “want to.”

Broadly speaking, a healthy habit is one that you can walk away from with minimal anxiety or fear.

When it comes to getting things done, it’s probably ventured into the territory of unhealthy when …

  • You’ve got a “just one more thing!” mentality (and it’s never just one more thing; it usually turns into 10).
  • You feel guilty or like you’re “wasting” time when you’re relaxing.
  • You feel distracted about what you “should” be doing when you’re spending time with friends and family.
  • You can’t focus or make headway on more important projects because you feel compelled to cross off as many emails or administrative tasks as possible.
  • You feel a lot of anxiety or discomfort at the idea of leaving things undone when it’s time to clock out.

Which brings me to…

EXHILIRATION VS. ANXIETY

Question #2: Does it light you up or make you feel anxious?

If you genuinely love getting things done — it’s just a part of your personality, and you are lit up when your life is more occupied with action — then every part of “getting things done” will likely feel good to you.

You won’t just feel relief when you’re crossing things off your list; you will generally be uplifted by a life that’s busier.

One of my closest friends is like this. I don’t understand her at all, but she genuinely loves running errands and having multiple social events on her calendar every week.

She thrives with lots of tasks and activities (her Passion Profile is Side Hustler, so this makes sense). She’s far more energized when she’s busy than when she’s less occupied.

If it’s less of an authentic choice and more of a compulsion, then the whole process probably won’t feel good to you.

Sure, you might feel relief when you cross things off your list, but again, you’ll likely feel a LOT of anxiety on a regular basis because you feel like you can’t ever relax until everything is done … and you will never be done. It’s a vicious cycle.

Your energy won’t feel lit up, and you definitely won’t be firing on all cylinders. In fact, pretty much the opposite will be true:

The need to get things done will drain you, stress you out, and overwhelm you instead of bring you joy.

And hey, none of this is to say that people who genuinely love getting things done can’t go too far and end up with an unhealthy attachment to being busy. That happens all the time!

If you are a true “lover of getting things done,” then you might need to establish some boundaries so that you don’t burn yourself out and go too far.

If you aren’t someone who enjoys busyness — you just feel compelled to be busy by a society that shamelessly encourages it — giving yourself permission to relish lots of SPACE is so critical.

After all, for a lot of us, having large swaths of uninterrupted time to recharge and do nothing is exactly what we need to stimulate our creative juices and make us more productive (for more on this topic, you must check out Essentialism by Greg McKeown. Also, check out some related blogs at the bottom of this page).

AVOIDANCE VS. ENGAGEMENT

Question #3: Are you using busyness to engage in something or avoid something?

Staying busy is a really convenient way to never face your problems.

Slowing down, stopping, or becoming still and silent is something a lot of us avoid like the plague so that we never have to think about what’s not working.

(It’s why you look left and right at the stoplight and everyone is scrolling through their phones. They can’t be with themselves for even a second!)

If, on the other hand, you’re not using busyness as a means of avoidance, you’re likely going to feel very engaged.

Getting things done and throwing yourself into your tasks will make you feel a deep sense of connection — to your purpose, to the people around you, and to your own mojo. You’ll feel more alive and like the best version of yourself.

This is the difference between, “I love what I’m doing so much that I finished 3 different projects, answered 50 emails, had 4 meetings, and came home pumped for more tomorrow!” and “I spent 12 hours working today because my marriage is struggling and I don’t want to go home and deal with it.”

And not all avoidance is conscious. In fact, I think most of the time it’s not.

You might be throwing yourself into busyness to unconsciously avoid any number of things, like …

  • The fact that you have no idea what you really want to do with your life.
  • You’re single and afraid of never finding someone.
  • You’re overly worried about what other people think of you, but don’t know how to change that.
  • You’re depressed or really unhappy, but you’re afraid that facing that fact means your whole life will become a mess.

Most things in life aren’t actually about what it seems like they’re about.

Being busy is no different. It’s often a cover for a deeper fear that you haven’t yet addressed.

So, there you have it. Three big questions for you to test yourself with. And now, you tell me:

On the spectrum between, “I love getting things done and am proud of it!” and “I’ve got an addiction to busyness,” where do you fall? Share with me in the comments!

IF YOU LIKED THIS, THEN YOU’LL ALSO LOVE …

You will never be done

The Martyr vs. the Trickster

Are you actually *qualified* for happiness?

Confession: I have a big urge to quit social media forever

Much Love,

Rachel (& Kristen)


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4 Comments // ADD COMMENT

4 comments

  • Colleen

    I think I fall somewhere in the middle. I do feel energized and a sense of accomplishment when I get things done. Sometimes, the busier I am, the more I accomplish. But then there are other times when I am adding more things to my To Do List than I am crossing off and I feel completely overwhelmed. I feel I am always trying to find the right balance.

    • Rachel East

      I think falling somewhere in the middle sounds pretty normal! As humans, our position on a spectrum is never fixed. It tends to vacillate depending on SO many factors, like our mood and the weather and the particular thing we’re working on that day. I think the fact that you’re aware of needing to find balance is the most important thing! A lot of people don’t realize how off the rails they are. If you’re paying attention to your patterns, that’s leaps and bounds ahead of where most people are!

  • Michael

    #2 really resonated with me. I’m more somebody who does better when he begins by having nothing to do, then from his own desire to improvise occupation starts getting tons of stuff progressed and eventually done. But I do feel pressure from society, big time, to set deadlines and make to do lists and for life to be all about whether you met the “demand of the day.” That, of course, becomes a vicious cycle, because if you spend every day meeting the “demand of the day” ultimately your life is being spent meeting “the demand of your life.” Meeting demands isn’t what inspires me, personally. What about you?

    • Rachel East

      Yeah, I definitely agree that our society has become very fixated on meeting the “demand of the day,” (or demands, plural, more likely) and putting out fires. It sends a lot of us into reaction mode, where the only headway we ever make is just responding and reacting to what’s right in front of us. In turn, that makes actual forward-moving progress something of a unicorn for most people. And yet, the things that require our proactiveness, not our reactiveness, are usually a big part of what we’re being paid to do. We end up stealing valuable time to actually accomplish bigger things from ourselves when we’re constantly putting out fires!