07/28/2011 06:11 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2011

How to Escape the 'Too Busy Trap'

Americans struggle with happiness, while others seem to find it naturally with so much less. How about you? Are you caught in the trap of being way too busy while longing for more happiness and fun? Ever catch yourself saying: "I'm going to slow down as soon as ________ (fill in the blank)?" But how often does it really happen? Could you learn something about living a happier life?

Michael Neill nailed the point recently in his article "Life is Not a Journey":

... How differently people would approach their lives if they really saw that there's nothing additional needed in order to be happy and well. Well-being is our nature, yet we spend so much of our time chasing after it like a dog chasing it's own tail ...

In my last article I shared about how the Italians have cracked the code. Wouldn't it be great to stop throwing your life away in a flurry of getting things done? Keep up this pace and you can look forward to stress-related illnesses, depression, burnout and broken relationships -- the risks couldn't be greater. What matters more than your health, your relationships and your happiness?

We've seen these things happen to others, time and again. The hard-working business owner, who put off spending time with the family, ends up alone and depressed. The 40- or 50-something professional, who worked out religiously but worked even harder, drops dead from a heart attack.

Every time such a tragedy strikes, we remind one another that life is short. Yet nothing changes. The air we breathe in America shapes us with its invisible hand. So how can you break out of the "too busy" trap while there's still time?

I suggest you start by asking yourself what you long for. What's on your "as soon as" list? Would you be willing to give up your busy-ness to have those things in your life now? As one who has way too often been caught in the "too busy trap" and frustrated by her inability to let go and just have fun, I have compassion for your struggle. I've always been able to shut it off on vacation, forget about the work issues and have a great time. Yet it's nearly impossible to keep the balance after I get back. But gradually, I'm learning.

Recently I had a breakthrough. As I shut down the computer on Friday, I looked forward to the weekend so I'd have time to get to the bottom of my inbox and clear the decks without the phone ringing and emails pouring in. Thank goodness that's not what happened.

Here's what did:

  • An hour's meditation each day
  • Enjoyed cooking a delicious dinner for friends on Saturday evening -- and took time to enjoy it with them
  • Went for a 45 minute walk with Tim in the Sunday morning stillness
  • Learned how to cook an Italian frittata on our new ceramic outdoor grill
  • Enjoyed every minute of the Women's World Cup soccer final
  • Sat in a secluded section of the garden and read a book -- first time I've sat there since I created the space 18 months ago

At first it was easy -- it's still early in the weekend, I'll have time. As the hours drifted by, I kept going with the fun option instead of what I had to get done. I can't say it was easy, as my responsible little voice kept saying things such as, "Let's tidy your closet, then you can go read" or, "Just start the prep work for dinner, then you can go to the pool" and even, "Clearing your inbox wouldn't take that long."

I've always known that when we seize time to do the things that matter, the rest takes care of itself. Absolutely true! Proven time after time. Carpe diem! Just do it! But knowing and doing are two different things, aren't they?

After Sunday dinner on the patio, instead of jumping up to do the dishes, I leaned back to watch the dragonflies. Zipping one way, dashing another. Endless loops going nowhere. Easy to make the connection with my own speed trip.

By Monday I felt restored, and I had the most productive week I'd had in a long, long time.

You know this lesson as well as I do. Are you ready to take the plunge into happiness, relaxation and pleasure? Are you ready to cure yourself of our national addiction, once and for all? Would you be willing to trust that it could work for you? That's the big question, because we're trapped by such thinking as, "I can't afford to relax" or, "I don't have time right now, given all I have to do" and "This is what I long for, but I can't do it now."

Believe me, I'm not suggesting that you become an irresponsible couch potato, but give yourself a break. The work will wait for you -- and you'll get it done more quickly and easily as a result of getting away from it.

A checklist for breaking out of your "too busy trap"

  • Shift your thinking to, "I'm enjoying my life, and my results have never been better!"
  • Write down your "as soon as" list.
  • Do one "as soon as" thing every day.
  • Stop working on the weekends.

Maybe you've heard:

Yesterday is history.
Tomorrow is a mystery.
Today? Today is a gift.
That's why we call it the present.
-- Babatunde Olatunji, 1927 - 2003

Leap and the net will appear.
-- John Burroughs, 1837-1921

Please leave a comment here, reporting even the littlest of successes. By doing so you'll inspire the rest of us. Or you can email me at

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