The most common response to the question “How are you?” these days is no longer “I’m fine,” it’s “I’m busy!” When I dig into this issue of being “too busy” with my clients, the real reason they stack their schedules is to avoid or distract themselves from uncomfortable feelings. Adults aren’t just doing this to themselves, parents are doing it to their children. While the intention may be different (I doubt the parents consciously think to distract their children from experiencing uncomfortable emotions by being busy), the outcome is that kids lose opportunities to indulge the creativity that comes with being bored. Not to mention the fact that kids can miss out on learning how to regulate and accept their emotions (the ones from which adults are distracting themselves).
There are a lot of uncomfortable feelings adults deem worthy of escaping. The primary source for uncomfortable feelings? Intimacy. Intimacy (the non-sexual relational usage) is defined as “closeness” which in all honesty, doesn’t quite capture the essence of intimacy; intimacy is about being open, vulnerable, aware, and close (both proxemics and relation) with another person. How does one experience intimacy? By being present (ahem, not escaping/distracting). Being present and experiencing this “closeness” with others is what humans are all about: connection. The fields of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology have all proposed — and supported through research– that humans’ main purpose for existence is to connect with others; form families, tribes and communities in order to survive. These days instead of allowing ourselves to be present and connect with one another, we dive into our phones, laptops, or activities scheduled so closely, we don’t even have time to talk about what we’re on our way to next.
When people schedule activities back-to-back, they are effectively multitasking. Our brain can’t actually do multiple things at the same time; it can hold opposing thoughts, sure, but it can’t focus on more than two things (because we have two lobes of the brain) without messing something up. This means that multitasking is actually fast task-switching (albeit so fast that we fool ourselves into thinking we’re super heroes for walking and texting without running into things… but that’s happened to you too, right?). Aside from automatic behaviors like breathing and walking, behaviors that takes conscious thought and attention can’t be effectively multitasked. Energy ends up getting wasted in the switching between tasks, and the more tasks you are switching between, the more energy that gets wasted. Not only that, but we are more likely to mess up on said tasks… 40% more likely to mess up. Wasted energy, increase in potential for errors and on top of that, chronic task-switching causes an increase in resting heart-rate and cortisol release (the hormone responsible for fight or flight, and when chronically increased, excess abdominal fat).
We have built a strong case against being “busy” a.k.a. multitasking. An additional part of this case that strongly relates to intimacy and presence is that when we are busy being busy, we never fully experience the activities in which we are participating. Because only a portion of our conscious attention is focused on an activity, it is impossible to experience the full effects because another part of our brain is working on filtering the stimuli affiliated with whatever other experience we are switching between. We end up leaving situations barely remembering what happened because our attention was stretched. When we leave an experience feeling unfulfilled, we then feel the need to do/schedule another activity simply because we never got the full effect of the first one. This is the cycle. Engage in an activity half-ass, experience an activity half-ass, feel half-assed. If we were to fully engage in one activity at a time, really devote our full attention to it, we would leave that experience feeling fulfilled. Bottom line: when we are present, in experiences and with people, we feel fulfilled.