It's called Busyness Syndrome, or BS for short. Many of us suffer a mild form of BS at least once in our lives and eventually figure out how damaging it is or limp along with a low-level chronic infection that doesn't interfere with our ability to be, generally speaking, happy. For many others, however, BS is a life-long struggle.
The people most susceptible to severe BS are smart, self-motivated high achievers who never learned to say no. These men and women sacrifice themselves on the altars of work and/or volunteerism and/or family. They over-commit themselves (and their families) to "organizations," "sports," "school," "activities," "experiences," and "accomplishments."
Aren't egregious quotation marks annoying? My point in using them here is to emphasize just how meaningless these otherwise worthwhile pursuits become when a person suffers from BS.
You see, in their frenetic drive to achieve everything they think they need to achieve, sufferers of BS lose their pleasure in life, their sense of purpose and self-worth, their healthy and justifiable sense of accomplishment, their satisfaction in a job well done. They move from one activity to the next with little thought of why they are so busy or what they truly need to be doing to feel happy and fulfilled. In filling their life with busyness, they become empty and dissatisfied.
I've observed two distinct variations of BS.
1. Megalithic BS occurs when one specific area of life completely overwhelms us. An attack of M-BS occurs when sudden events throw a person's life out of balance temporarily, most often through no fault of their own. When Jack was diagnosed with autism, that megalith took over our lives for a time, which, given the seriousness of the situation and our urgent need for self-education and quick action, was entirely appropriate. Eventually, the panic subsided, we figured things out, and a healthy balance reasserted itself in our lives.
Another example of M-BS occurs when a workplace fails to recognize that people have, you know, actual lives. In these cases, it may simply take a little time for a person to wise up. I have a very close relative whose workplace quite abruptly became so dysfunctional that she was working 14 or more hours a day, sacrificing sleep and sanity and family time, on the promise from supervisors that "it would get better." Wisely, after a period of sheer craziness, she applied for another job, got it, and now makes more money doing far less work.
Megalithic BS, though painful and serious, should go away naturally as sufferers move beyond the crisis that provoked it, but if they don't recover on their own, professional intervention may be necessary. (That's not a joke, by the way.)
2. A completely different variant of Busyness Syndrome is Task-Saturation BS. TS-BS happens when people just can't say no. Sometimes, they can't say no when people ask them to do stuff. Sometimes, they fruitlessly collect accomplishments and experiences to pad some sort of imaginary resume that will win them a plaque on their tombstone labeled "Busiest Person Buried in This Here Cemetery."
TS-BS sufferers are addicted to doing too many things. They forget how to breathe because they are simply too overwhelmed to slow down and think, to prioritize, to delegate. They do not regularly take stock of their to-do lists and make decisions as to what tasks are truly important and need to be done, and which ones are optional.
Like any addiction, the habits formed in sufferers become deeply entrenched in their brains. Even when all evidence points toward stopping a particular activity or establishing healthy limits to the number of activities one person or family can reasonably do, TS-BS induces feelings of guilt that perpetuate the illness.
"I worry that if I didn't volunteer to do this, no one would."
"All my son's friends are taking tennis, acting in community theater, playing football, and building Lego robots. He'll feel left out if he doesn't do all these things, too!"
"My three-year-old simply must take this $400 computer class so she doesn't fall behind her peers!"
"If I don't stay up late and finish this post, my readers will be disappointed!" (Oh, wait. Was that my outside voice?)
Anyway, as someone who finally learned to say no (and was tired and went to bed last night without posting to either of her blogs), I can assure you that, if you suffer from TS-BS, there is hope. Just follow these three steps.
1. Start small. Identify one activity you can purge from your life or your family's schedule. Question why you are doing that activity. For instance, paying $400 to teach a toddler how to use a computer is just silly. Why would anyone waste money and time on that? Kids absorb technology even when we don't want them to in an insidious and unpreventable osmosis. You don't have to pay for it.
2. Once you have identified one activity that you can live without, purge it. Just quit. I know, I know. You don't want to be a quitter. But do it anyway. Quit. And don't replace it with another activity.
3. After you have achieved a slightly lower level of TS-BS, go back to step one. Repeat the entire process as many times as necessary to achieve balance in your life and find yourself again.
Each repetition becomes easier than the last, until eventually you will do these steps without even thinking about them. They will become a life-long habit just like the BS was a habit...only healthy and good for you.