Lose control:Tyranny of the “To-Do” Lists – Tips to become less busy

It is important to lose control, become less busy and resist the Tyranny of the “To-Do” Lists. Lama Surya Das, an American born Buddhist lama, stated in his book, Buddha Standard Time, that humans in effect have become “human doings” as opposed to human beings. It appears that we have become prisoners of our  “to do” lists. Even when not working, we are almost constantly cleaning, shopping, cooking, fixing, building, doing yard work, and so on. Clearly, such activities need to be done but in so many cases they have taken over our lives. Many experience considerable guilt and anxiety if they don’t complete a certain amount of tasks in a day. We live to scratch off one more item from that to do list. Which means I guess that the last item at the end of our life says “die”. We have become very, very busy bees.

We have stopped knowing how to “bee”:)

This frenetic need to stay busy is a modern and largely western trait. In the bible, “sloth” is one of the “seven deadly sins”. In eastern and more aboriginal cultures, contemplative virtues were considered as having virtue. I doubt we’ll see a TV commercial reminding us to “stop and meditate” any time soon. It is difficult to propel a consumer driven economy with those messages.

At a personal level, a lot of conditioning and learning occurs to increase our feelings to be productive. Essentially, in many subtle and not so subtle ways, we come to learn the value is on what we do, and not on what we are. this is more likely to be true in shame based family systems. Thus, we learn to constantly prove our worth through grades, accomplishments, completed tasks and so on. Many consequently learn to feel anxious, guilty or ashamed if they are idle, relaxing, or taking it easy. Thus they feel inclined to always stay busy. Some gender differences probably exist which determine the nature of our busy-ness. For women it is more likely to take the form of domestic/nurturant tasks, cleaning, and shopping. For males, they will feel compelled to work, build, fix, home maintenance and the like. There are of course many exceptions to these gender role stereotypes.

Over time, by staying so busy and through constant hyper-stimulation of our nervous systems through information, media and technological exposure, our brains become “addicted” to high levels of input. Thus, we are inclined to more easily feel “bored” or “disinterested’ if stimulation falls below some critical threshold for very long.  As John Kabat-Zin stated, we have become an ….”ADD nation”.

All religions recognize the importance of rest. In the Judeo-christian tradition, for example,the sabbath was set aside as a time for rest, contemplation and prayer. Growing up in New York City, i can remember than when the so called “blue laws” were still in effect, most stores were closed on Sunday. There are still Jewish neighborhoods where little or no commerce takes place on Saturday, the Hebrew sabbath. Spanish speaking countries on both sides of the Atlantic historically practice the siesta or mid day rest as time to rest and recharge. sadly, the practices of the Sabbath and Siesta are in decline with the spread of western practices and influence. Many cultures in the sub-saharan regions also tend to be inactive during the hottest part of the day.  Research and naturalistic observation conducted with a wide variety of animals shows that large amounts of time are devoted to relaxation and rest independent of sleep. Physical anthropologists can infer many things from skeletal remains of our human ancestors and the speculation has been put forward that modern man is probably far busier than perhaps at any time in history. Remember how much time computers were going to save us? So much for the speculation of the four day work week that was advanced when personal computers became widely available in the’80’s. The sobering fact is, as more work is possible as a result of technological advancement, the expectation of productivity increased as well.

Biological research indicates that our health is compromised by our excessive amount of work, and more importantly by our limited amount of rest. We are not genetically designed to be as chronically active and stressed as we are. Whenever our lifestyle deviates signi9ficantly from our genetic code, illness is likely to ensue.

So, how can we overcome the cultural and personal conditioning as well as practical realities that cause us to be so busy?

1) We must decide, in concert with family members, what is most important. We also need to decide what values to pass on to our children. Do we really need to sign them up for every activity? We must recognize that rest and play are not luxuries but critical for good health and development.

2) Put “relaxation” on your “to do” list. Don’t make it the last item on your list.

3) Learn how to relax. This might sound strange but most people don’t really know how to relax. Relaxation is a skill that has to be learned. There are many good books, DVD’s, and CDs. I often recommend http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=letting+go+of+stress or  http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=the+relaxations+response&rh=i%3Aaps%2Ck%3Athe+relaxations+response .

4) Learn to face the anxiety, shame, guilt, loneliness, emptiness and boredom that may arise in association with “not doing”. You can utilize the “emotional surfing” exercise (please see an earlier post on this blog: https://blackturtlebooks.com/integrative-mindful-exposure-emotional-surfing/ )to more mindfully penetrate the feelings that arise as one even contemplates resting. Mindfully label and even write down the feelings, thoughts and memories that surface as you relinquish some of your busy-ness.

5) Teach your kids, relaxation and/or meditation. Do it with them A great book for younger kids is Peaceful Piggies meditation http://www.amazon.com/Peaceful-Meditation-Albert-Whitman-Prairie/dp/0807563811/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1354744151&sr=8-1&keywords=peaceful+piggies+meditate.

6) Don’t plan vacations that require a subsequent vacation to recover. Don’t plan on seeing all the sights or hitting every activity. Hint: Disney World may not be the best bet for a restorative vacation.

7) Breath (mindfully). And in the words of Guru Ram Das, be here now!


You are all invited (pleaded) to post thoughts, comments, experiences, questions and insults. All are welcome.



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2 Comments. Leave new

  • I couldn’t agree more strongly. I’ve recently taken a job that allows me to work out of my RV and I’m able to weave a large amount of down time into my routine. It’s been a blessing and I’ve learned how desperately I used to try to ‘impress’ myself with business. How absurd!

  • I really meant ‘busyness’ but they both apply!


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