An Antidote to Busyness


Over the past few months, work has been tedious and energy-sapping, everyone around me has been seemingly fighting against me, and I’ve become one of those people who, whenever asked the question, ‘How are you?’ always responds with some variation of ‘Busy.’

It’s not that my attitude towards what I do has suddenly changed, or I’ve just been landed with a huge pile of work, or I’ve recently had more problems than normal in my personal life.

But still, something drastic has shifted in my work. And now every day, instead of flowing along effortlessly with the current, it feels like I’m manically trying to swim against it.

This is the difference in being occupied and being ‘busy’ — a state that has become so common in society that for many people it feels a necessary and unavoidable part of getting to where they want to go.

But it’s not; it’s merely a condition we fall into when things get a little — or a lot — out of balance. And as such, if anyone is to spend much of their time working and living in this way, they would burn out so quickly they’d have little time or energy to see what was even happening and why.

So why does it happen?

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

We all know what’s important to us. But when we work in an environment that’s geared toward extrinsic goals like titles and money, status and power, publicity and fame, and that pays little attention to our intrinsic motivators like meaning and purpose, service and duty, and learning and growth, we all too often forget why it is we do what we do.

But as the above quote from Victor Frankl suggests, it’s not merely as simple as reciting your goals and saying some positive affirmations in the mirror each morning.

When we get busy, tired, overworked, and stressed, it’s a sign we are somehow compromising on our basic needs and even neglecting some completely. As we are often unable to change our situation, we thus become more and more inclined to try our meet our needs through extrinsic rewards — i.e. money, power, praise, stuff.

The problem is, when this balance gets so disrupted that we begin relying on extrinsic rewards, instead of fulfilling our intrinsic goals and values, as the reasons we drag ourselves out of bed in the mornings and work 14-hour shifts.

One of the foundational aspects of self-determination theory (SDT), a theory developed in the 70s that helps focus us toward natural or intrinsic motivation, is the Basic Psychological Needs Theory (BPNT). The theory states that we humans have three innate psychological needs: a need to feel competent, a need to feel related, and a need to feel autonomous.

According to BPNT, only when we feel competent — able to achieve a task successfully and efficiently — related — have close personal relationships as well as a feeling of belonging to a group — and autonomous — having freedom to seek what interests you and govern your own work — are we free to be motivated by our intrinsic values.

In other words, when work is engaging, social, and self-determined, we will not get caught up in the unfulfilling pursuit of extrinsic rewards but work from a place of love, service, and growth.

Unfortunately, as many of us work jobs we don’t really like and the workplace is shaped around the pursuit of extrinsic rewards as ends in themselves and pays little heed to the needs of individuals, very few people can say their work meets these conditions.

However, there is another process in SDT called internalisation which states we can align and fuse extrinsic motivation with our intrinsic goals and values. And when we can internalise and align the extrinsic with the intrinsic, we can help recognise and support our basic needs — particularly in the sense of being competent and self-determined or autonomous — while at the same time moving in line with our intrinsic goals.

For example, someone may find filing reports and meeting translation word counts dehumanising and soul destroying. However, if they come to understand how the activities are valuable and important as a means of personal growth and skill development (this is helping me understand the industry, this is the first step in my writing career, this is developing critical skills like resilience and patience), then they can internalise the extrinsic motivators and see them as inseparable part of pursuing their most important and valuable goals.

In this way, we become better able to keep one eye firmly on the bigger picture, and as a result, move from being the person who’s always lost in unimportant details, playing catch up, and talking about how busy they are, to the one who turns up, gets the job done, and doesn’t feel the need or desire to tell anyone about it.


Joseph Pennington is a freelance writer and long-term traveller from the North of England. Connect with him on LinkedIn or check out another one of his posts, A Better Solution to Beating Smartphone Addiction.