Breaking Up with Busyness

About a year ago, I started breaking up with Busyness. Busyness and I were pretty deep in a toxic relationship that had started sometime in my sophomore year of college, just around the time that I was introduced to a budding career in Student Affairs.

Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks, responsibilities, and to-do lists (usually work-related, but for me, also related to volunteering that is suspiciously like work) is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, is an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. With a calendar that looked like a game of Tetris, I embarked on each semester with an increasing sense of urgency and anxiety, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils.

For about 7 years I kept up this deleterious dance, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. Every time I started to get weary, I reminded myself that I had a reputation for excellence to uphold. I was Ashley F**king Robinson (an actual nickname that others used for me). I was the smartest, most accomplished, and goddamnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful.

What a load of bullshit that was. I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most people were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying busyness, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the damn door. I was getting burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and I knew that if I wanted to have a long, rewarding career of educating college students, I needed to do it differently.

I stopped checking email at night and on weekends, unless I was actually working. I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends.  I started going to the gym regularly for the first time ever. I started getting up and walking around every 45 minutes. I paid attention to my mental and physical health and nutrition. I kept track of my sleep and always aimed for 8 hours in bed. I stepped away from any extra work obligations that were not clearly benefitting me and the mission of my department as it related to my scope of influence (committees, I’m looking at you). I refused to let myself feel guilty when I left the office when other people were still there or didn’t volunteer for something extra after hours. I let things slide a little bit here and there in favor of more important priorities.

When I did this, bad things did not start happening. In fact, good things started happening. I am less stressed and more organized than I used to be. I spend more time on things that I am passionate about. I lost weight and got healthier. I advanced my career with a new job. I fell in love. I’m not saying that if you stop answering your email at night, you’re automatically going to lose 20lbs, get a new job, and find love…but what I am saying is that when I carved out and fiercely protected my free time, I allowed myself to expend energy on previously neglected areas like reflection and personal fulfillment outside of work.

Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when individuals break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. Over the past year, I communicated openly and widely about my quest for balance and wellness. I told supervisors, peers, and students that this was a core value of mine and encouraged and supported the same type of behavior in others. I reflected on the ways I had felt guilty or not enough in the past and tried to break down those forces for others as I combatted them for myself. And this, I think is the path to fix our busyness problem.

We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic work culture that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time. Stop scheduling things for after hours that don’t have to be after hours. Encourage your staff to be productive without spending extra time in the office. Be clear and consistent in your expectations for how supervisees spend their time, and when extra time is spent, ensure that they are able to balance that out. Challenge if extra time needs to be spent or if there are ways to work smarter, further ahead, and more creatively. Stop acting like the world is going to come to a screeching halt if you don’t send emails at 11pm. Challenge how we schedule student staff and how we structure our schedules during both the busy times and low times. Eat lunch. Ask for help. Go home. Don’t be a martyr.

It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.