Have you ever noticed that when you’re around a chronically busy person, someone who’s constantly flying by the seat of their pants, always in a rush, perpetually acting like they’re two steps behind where they need to be… you feel that way too?
Busy is contagious.
We are wired to pick up on stress signals from one another. It’s meant to help us: back in our hunter-gatherer days, if we saw someone looking panic-stricken go running past us as if fleeing from a predator, our odds of survival dropped significantly if our brain didn’t send us the message that “Hey, maybe something’s wrong that we should be on guard about… and maybe we should get the hell out of the way, too.”
We pick up on stress signals even when there are no predators around, though. When we’re around someone who behaves as if everything around them is in chaos, our brain does what it’s wired to do and tells us that everything around us may be in chaos, and it’d be in our best interests to act accordingly.
And when you’re around someone who’s chronically busy, sure enough, you start feeling (and often acting) busy too. Busy-ness is highly contagious.
Preventing the spread of busy-ness
If only it were as simple as washing your hands regularly.
The best way to not catch a case of the busy is to not spend much time with those already sneezing chaos and running a fever of one-hundred-and-panicked. This is especially true if you’re already prone to busy-ness, or if you’re already feeling stressed out. That’s like having a compromised immune system: you’re that much more likely to catch busy-ness when your defenses are already low.
But even if you’re feeling calm and minimally stressed, putting yourself in the midst of someone else’s busy exposes you to those signals your brain is wired to receive. It will, eventually, respond by queuing you to feel stressed, chaotic and busy too.
The best way to prevent catching busy-ness is to stay away from those who spread it. Imagine that they have the stomach flu: your best bet to remain healthy is to interact with them when they’re well (i.e., not behaving busy-ly) and to minimize your interaction with them when they’re not.
When you can’t totally avoid other peoples’ busy-ness
There’s no inoculation that will render you immune to other peoples’ busy-ness. On some level, you’re going to pick up on those queues. Even if you don’t respond by panicking or acting crazy-busy, you may feel your stress level rise, or your concentration waver, or your sense of presence in the Now be shaken.
But there’s also no way — short of retreating to a mountain cave for solitary meditation — to completely avoid interacting with chronically busy people. They may be your clients. They may be your close friends. They may be your spouse, or your boss.
So we each have to develop strategies that help us undo the damage that exposure to busy-ness causes. For some people, their own to-do lists help: no matter what chaos surrounds them, they can come back to their list, focus on it, and feel centered and in control of their time and process as long as they’re checking things off.
For other people, pausing (even very briefly) to return to the here-and-now help. A few deep breaths, maybe a quick break outside, or just sitting quietly at their desk for a few beats, reminds them that the chaos and busy-ness isn’t real or necessary.
And for others, daily activity (working out, walking the dogs, playing a sport, dancing, etc.) helps “burn off” those stress feelings and re-channels that pent up energy and adrenaline into physical movement, rather than letting it become busy behavior.
The key is to deal with busy-ness without becoming busy
The strategies above aren’t comprehensive. The keys are to become aware of the people in our lives who are themselves chronically busy, and to develop strategies for neutralizing the effects of their busy-ness on our own mind and behavior. We have to learn to deal with busy-ness without getting swept up in it too.
★ What are your strategies for preventing the spread of busy-ness? What do you do proactively to avoid other peoples’ busy-ness, and what do you do reactively after you’ve been around it?