The Life-Changing Magic of Doing Less

Many Americans define ourselves so entirely by what we do that when someone asks us how we’re doing, we don’t share our emotional state. Instead, we answer with one word: “Busy!”Man standing in a beautiful nature scene with the sky, rock formations, and a lake

David Sbarra, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, describes himself in a 2017 Vox article “addicted to busyness.” He had a wonderful, full life and a career he loved, yet he felt as if he was “going through the motions” and “missing the moments of joy embedded in everyday life.” Then he applied a principle from his work as a psychologist to his own life, and found that he could get so much more out of life simply by doing less.

Read on for tips on how to let go of busyness and make space for satisfaction.

A Rising Obsession with “Busyness”

In her 2014 book Overwhelmed, Brigid Schulte writes, “so much do we value busyness, researchers have found a human ‘aversion’ to idleness and a need for ‘justifiable busyness.’” We are preoccupied not only with being busy, but with telling everyone around us just how busy we are.

Researchers use an unexpected metric to measure this trend: holiday cards. An analysis of holiday cards from the 1960s to the present day showed that in previous decades, Americans used these annual missives to update loved ones about the happy and sad moments from the last year of their lives. Now, generalized busyness has become the major theme of many people’s cards.

Refocusing on What Matters Most

Sbarra explains that he identified busyness as the root cause of his dissatisfaction through his experiences using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT, pronounced as the word “act”) with his psychotherapy clients. One of the guiding principles of ACT, a scientifically validated psychotherapy treatment based in talk therapy, is that much of the emotional pain we experience comes from the difficulty we have distancing ourselves from “the terribleness of things,” as Sbarra put it.

When we’re caught up in negative thought cycles and unable to distance ourselves from difficult experiences, we can become disconnected from our core values. ACT helps people separate themselves from thoughts like “I feel overwhelmed,” or “this is hopeless,” and focus on the parts of their lives where they can enact change. In short, it helps people find what means the most to them … and then keep it in sight.

Taking the First Step

ACT helped Sbarra realize that “busyness devoured my values.” He navigated his life mindlessly, approaching everything from work to exercise to his home life as items on a list, walking along a log on a nature pathwaiting to be checked off. “I needed to start doing less, and to become more conscious about my choices,” he writes.

He began with a small change: walking more. The results came quickly, and changed his life in deep ways. “It would not be an overstatement to say that an additional 40 minutes a day of walking just two or three times a week has changed me in a profound way,” he writes. “Walking provides time to think, to be energized by nature, and to feel less frenzied.”

Other Ways of Downshifting

Walking may or may not be the place for you to begin your journey away from busyness and toward genuine happiness. Maybe your first step would be to spend half an hour reading, instead of half-watching a TV show while checking your phone. Maybe it’s taking breaks during your workday to talk with your colleagues. It could be cooking easy, casual meals at home instead of eating out. Or meditating for five or ten minutes every morning. Or calling one friend or family member each day to talk for fifteen minutes, just talk, without doing anything else. There are hundreds of ways to add a daily dose of downshifting to your life. Choose something actionable, something you can do every day and incorporate into your routine without rearranging much else. Taking that first step will help you live a more deliberate … connected … and energized life. Who knows what you’ll take on next?