If you've been known to jam pack your schedule with work, errands, domestic duties, and some semblance of a social life, you're probably familiar with the pitfalls that can be side effects of an overly busy lifestyle. But it doesn't have to be that way. There's a big difference between those who fill their days productively and those who do so to distract from issues that need to be dealt with. And according to recent research, there are actually legitimate benefits of being busy — so long as you're going about it in a healthy way.
A study by Psychology Today shows that, while the extreme versions of staying busy can result in stress, anxiety, and even a higher susceptibility to illness, it's not always a bad thing. And according to San Jose-based psychologist Dr. Annie Varvaryan, your intentions have a lot to do with whether or not you're benefitting from your current schedule. "When the intent behind being busy is avoidance of processing worries and feelings, this is considered unhealthy," she explains. "When the intent behind being busy is to engage in healthy distraction from constantly engaging in worry (that is, more than just processing the emotions), then this is considered healthy."
If your intentions are best described by the latter of these, your busy lifestyle could help keep you productive as well as creatively inspired — in the best cases. And based on what Dr. Varvaryan has seen in her clients, there are a few reasons for that. For one thing, if you're practicing heathy habits, staying busy means less time for excessive and unproductive worrying. "Staying busy gives us the opportunity to reduce rumination and worry over things that we can't go back and change, or things we can't control about our future," she explains. "Instead, focusing on the positives — such as the opportunity to be busy, to have a job that pays appropriately or well, to have a social life that allows you to be busy with friends or your partner, — could be a positive factor in your life."
The psychologist also notes that staying active can allow you to stay in the moment, instead of focusing on the past or stressing about the future. "When we are engaging in healthy busyness, we have the opportunity to stay in our present moment and focus on the here-and-now," she adds.
Think you could actually benefit from being a bit busier? If you've noticed you've got some idle time, and find yourself filling it with unproductive behaviors, Dr. Varvaryan has some advice. "Some healthy busy behaviors that are effective and adaptive to well-being are self-care strategies, meditation, taking a walk, connecting with friends or family, or asking for an appropriate amount of work that is reasonable in the workplace to possibly prepare yourself for a promotion," she says. "Again, the intention is important here. We are looking for ways to keep ourselves busier without trying to avoid or distract ourselves."
On the flip side, she also has some tips for those who have found themselves to be too busy in a way that is negatively impacting them. The first step is taking a look at what's contributing to the situation and how each item on your schedule is affecting you. "Take inventory of your weekly routine and identity what behaviors fall into different categories: Tasks for work, social life, daily living, and self," she offers. "Notice what are the behaviors you do for yourself. Make note of the behaviors you engage in and ask yourself how you can replace some of these behaviors with the healthy ones identified above."