Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fight the BS

In this age of "disorder du jour," you might roll your eyes when you hear of a new affliction crippling many otherwise intelligent, well-educated, people. But I assure you, there is one syndrome you need to know about because if you don't suffer from it yourself, you know someone who does. I promise.

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.

Ironic, that.

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.

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  1. bet you feel better getting this outta your system? i certainly would.

    the construction of your sentences and paragraphs are as elegant as the composition of your cards.

    ginny b in kc

  2. Oh, Susan, this week I am (and my daugher is) suffering badly from TS-BS. What a timely post. My poor 9 year old has two days a week where she starts at 6.15am (swim team) and continues right through to 3pm. Two days a week she starts at 8am and finishes at 5pm. Between swim team, swim squad, music theory, school choir, violin, piano, string ensemble, poetry recital, and let's not forget school, life is a bit hectic right now. And I'm deeply tired, and my daughter is too! I am dedicating the week-ends of this first term of school to total relaxation for our family, and maybe we'll make it through to the end of the swim season.

  3. It's interesting that you posted this. I have been a lifelong sufferer of BS, only I call it Clarinet Syndrome. When I was seven, my sister used to drop her clarinet on the ground on the way to school, knowing I would pick it up. I always worried that she would get in trouble, or it would get stolen etc.... This year, when you asked about a word for the year, I didn't submit mine, but it is "Mary". I have been a Martha all my life. I want to be a Mary. Someone who has time to really enjoy what's before her. Someone who doesn't feel compelled to pick up everyone else's clarinets. Someone who has finally decided to kick her BS in favor of leisurely joy. (It's kind of ironic that my latest post is about my busy husband, but that is all about seasons, not lifestyles).

  4. Thanks, I needed that! Just finished a conversation with my dearly beloved that I was sorry I had set up a dinner date with some friends because now there is a project for work that should be done by Monday. Then I said"Why should I be sorry that we want to see our friends...?" Oh, retirement is going to be a joy!

    Have a good week-I am dropping the computer for a few days.

    Sorry 'bout the rant-it's been that kind of day.

  5. I wish I had read something like this 30 years ago.

    In my previous life I suffered from TS-BS. In my new life I can recognize that it was something of an illness.

    My new husband has known me for sometime and HE knew the diagnosis way back then. He has helped me so much to slow down and recover. I still have occasional bouts of it; but they aren't as prolonged.

    I am experiencing megalithic BS at work right now. My 56 hour schedule is crazy and uncalled for; but I tolerate it. The means justify my ends at the moment. The overtime money is being used for a home improvement project. It's winter and our boat is on shore. Come spring though...adjustments will be made.

    As usual we seem to lead parallel lives on different planes. You are very good at reading people. Perhaps you should have been a psychologist instead of a writer?

    I am going to forward this post to a few people who need to read it.

  6. As someone who is in the midst of raising three children all of whom are in at least one activity at any given point and the youngest child just turned six, I will be really busy for a long, long time! I am pleased to be able to provide the opportunity for the kids to participate in activities. I think that when you have less spare time, you appreciate and use that time more wisely. As for myself, I've chosen not to be on Facebook. I've heard it's a time drain and I can think of more meaningful ways to spend my time and to interact with friends (one on one email, phone calls and lunches are how I stay in touch). I've also made family meals together a priority, even if it means eating at odd times- super early or super late to accommodate schedules. The point is that we pray and eat together at least once a day. Maybe someday I'll regret our busy lives- I can't rule out that possibility. But when my little girl asks every day when she gets to go to gymnastics again and propels herself forward in our house by doing roundoffs instead of walking, I'm glad I signed her up (plus I bring my Kindle to gymnastics and get to read a bit!).

  7. I agree, Maria. There are just some times in our life that are naturally, unavoidably busy. That doesn't mean we have BS. BS is distinguished by unhealthy busyness that makes us unhappy and gives us feelings of resentment or guilt or excessive pressure. And I LOVED all the reading I got done when Nick and Jack were in gymnastics! What a great treat!

  8. My cure for BS was moving overseas and having my slate wipe cleaned of every commitment and expectation and activity. I became very mindful of the value of my time and energy and the effect kid activities had on the family. It's sad it took something so drastic to reach that point.

  9. This post brought to mind the things I’ve learned over the years about busyness and “what’s back of all that” for many women.

    Life was wonderfully busy when I became an at-home mom, but imbalance ruled when I took on multiple volunteer positions, some which had substantial responsibility. Sad and embarrassed to admit, but I was too weak to resist what I now call “pop culture feminism,” which isn’t true feminism at all. When Arielle was born 21 years ago, and I chose to leave the paid work force, I was unprepared for the reactions from many of my so-called “enlightened sisters.” They really didn’t respect the choice, and made that apparent. (The good news is that because there were enough of us who eventually insisted on living out and even boldly speaking out and celebrating our choice to invest in life on the home front, things are easier for the at-home mothers who came after us.)

    I decided that I could justify my decision with the volunteer positions I held. However, I was volunteering so much that I may as well have had a paid job for the amount of time I was out and about.

    Once I realized the motivation behind what I was doing, I learned that powerful word: “No.” Once I realized that the investment I was making in my relationship with my child in particular – the value of the conversations, of being there, the unstructured time for her to explore and discover and be – and understood those things were more important than the career I could have continued and the myriad volunteer positions available – well, I discovered such a full and satisfying existence that no one was able to talk me out of it.

    Your advice about limiting the number of children’s activities is spot on. Parents need to be honest with themselves, and not be so swayed by what activities other parents are choosing for their children, or the flattering words of the coach. Most of our children are not going to be Olympians or professional athletes or artists. I regularly talk with students now, and some tell me right up front that it is unlikely they will get their homework done because of evening activities. Are you kidding me?

    It is indeed a different world, but we do it to ourselves – and it is up to us to take back our time and live life as it was meant to be lived – with balance.

  10. Sharon, you're always eloquent. Thanks for paving the way for me ten years later.

  11. TS-BS here! *raises hand* and over the past year or so I've slowly started to prune. It feels WONDERFUL!

  12. Finally perusing this (your "other" blog) - and really enjoying it, especially this post. Thanks for sharing - so much of what you say rings very, very true for me!


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!