Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
October 29, 2020

Re-evaluating the meaning of “busy” and striving to stay present

By KELSEY KO | May 3, 2018

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I’m not quite sure what burnout is, but what happened two weeks ago felt something quite like it. After weeks of what had felt like going through life on auto-pilot — running in and out of back-to-back meetings, slogging through a cappella practices, rubbing my bleary eyes in the morning and rushing to class — a bad grade on a midterm tipped the scale. 

In what could possibly be categorized as the most dramatic, angst-ridden moment in my young adult life, I came home, collapsed on my bed and cried myself to sleep at 4 in the afternoon.

Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember the last time that I defined myself by anything other than the word busy. Who am I without this adjective? Busy has always been good to me. Busy has helped me to feel productive, useful and motivated. Busy has given me networks of people I cherish, who work toward the same goals as me. 

I’ve loved the never-ending grind of running from building to apartment to lunch plans to the library. I’ve relished the fact that I crash at the end of the each day, exhausted by my efforts.

But here’s the catch: Busy is also the greatest pretense for someone who cannot be alone with their own thoughts. Busy is the aura of productivity masking the fact that you feel completely out of control with each “Yes” and every “I’ll do it.”

And for me, the art of being busy is trying to connect with people but keeping them at a distance. It’s surrounding myself with causes I believe in until I’m stretched so thin that I’m no longer sure what I can possibly give.

We all have the persona that we strive to project out into the world. I don’t know at what point I began to internalize that exterior image of myself — the girl who is smiling, encouraging, calm, optimistic — to the point where I denied myself of feeling sadness. 

Two weeks ago when I had that meltdown, it was like holding a mirror up to my inner psyche. And what I saw was a girl who was frantically treading water. I wasn’t sinking; I wasn’t swimming. I was just making sure I didn’t drown.

More and more, I’m realizing that having it all and doing it all does not mean I’ll become happier. It is my crutch. I take on everything because I’m scared of being nothing. 

Business and responsibility and productivity validate me. My activities and accomplishments soothe my intense fear that what I do might not matter or is not enough, keeping me safely distracted from any sort of pain. 

When I was back home in Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago with little to do but relax, I couldn’t find relief from my anxiety and catastrophic thinking. I’d sit in my bed, self-care routine of face mask and candles in place and my favorite book in hand, unable to calm the cacophony of my own thoughts — was I doing enough for the activities and clubs that I was involved in? What if I didn’t do well in my classes this semester? Why wasn’t I a better friend? 

Once I was alone with nothing to do, it was clear to me how hard I’d been trying to drown out the insecure, anxious voice in my head. 

For instance, this past January after a breakup, I threw myself headfirst into my work and social life as a coping mechanism. I knew that if I kept constantly busy, I wouldn’t have to think about it. I remember one of my friends checking in with me after a month of me clearly driving myself into the ground. 

“Being alone is hard. Mornings and nights are the hardest,” she said.

And she’s right. Going through my morning routine or laying in bed at night, my anxiety doesn’t leave me alone. With nothing to do and no one by my side, it’s just me and the incessant hum in my own head, swirling with doubts, insecurities and fears.

While being busy has meant not taking time to check in with my own sadness, it’s also meant that I’ve felt out of tune with my own happiness. Sometimes it feels like my brain is light years ahead of what I’m doing in the present moment, always thinking about the next project I have to do, the next meeting I have to make. 

Maybe busy has also made me selfish. I feel ashamed to admit that it’s hard for me to even hold long conversations with people without my eyes darting around the room because I feel stressed about taking too much time out of my day. When push comes to shove, it feels like in my constant state of doing, friends and relationships have fallen by the wayside.

Let’s take this moment to remind ourselves that life is not about doing so much that we’re suddenly no longer present. I don’t want to feel so preoccupied that I’m numb to experiencing the little pockets of joy in my day. 

Like the laughter that fills the tiny room in Mattin Center during a cappella practices or the Gatehouse on a News-Letter production night. The nice barista at Brody who slides me an extra free pastry at closing time. The feeling of lying on the Beach on a Friday afternoon. 

I’ll try to remember to live in those moments, rather than just going through the motions. Instead of saying yes to everything, I’ll try to say yes to myself and my own ability to fully invest in what I already have. 

It hurts to exist in a constant state of holding my breath, precariously piling on commitments, hoping that everything doesn’t come crashing down. So I’ll revel in the quiet, attentive to what my body and mind try to tell me. Exhale.

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