This summer when I’ve been asked, “How are you?” my initial response has mostly been, “I’m busy!” This response is true, but not totally accurate. “Being busy” has many different meanings. It’s important to differentiate those meanings.

I’ve been alternating between a “gratified busy” that fills my bucket and an “overwhelmed busy” that makes me feel panicky. Calling both these states “being busy,” means I’m not  mindfully attending to either one. Being mindful of how we are attending to and feeling about our tasks is how we generate better energy—we can modify what’s working and what’s not.

When I’m the kind of busy that makes me happy and purposeful, I want to be grateful and enjoy it. I might say “life is full,” or “I’m working on lots of interesting things.” When I’m the kind of busy that consumes my energy with tasks that are necessary but not gratifying, I might say, “I’m feeling  a bit run down.” When I’ve got multiple balls in the air and not feeling in control, I’d be more accurate saying, “I’m feeling overwhelmed.” How I deal with a bunch of depleting to-dos is different than how I manage too many different or competing things on my plate. To be wise about to what I say “yes” and “no,” I have to be clear about how specific things impact me. To distribute my energy efficiently, I have to understand what in particular is feeding me, teaching me, or draining me.

Most of us feel good saying, “I’m busy!” We like being in motion, getting things done. Our culture rewards busy and we often associate lulls in activity with the insecurity of periods of transition or uncertainty, such as unemployment. It’s important to acknowledge how much of being busy is positive and treat it as such. The axiom, “If you want something done ask a busy person to do it” is often true. People in motion tend to stay in motion. I certainly manage my time more efficiently when I have less of it. And yet, I also know that the positive charge from being busy gives busyness the ability to seduce me away from other vital states of being.

 “Being busy is its own kind of laziness.” I don’t know who said this or in what context but the truth of it shot through me when this comment blared out on the speaker system when I turned my car on recently. It rang true for me personally and is also central to many of my client’s efforts to expand on what they do and how they are working. When we want to be more creative or strategic, we need time and space to think, plan and create. Trying something new or doing something differently requires slowing down, assessing, and putting energy into accomplishing what’s  unfamiliar to us. The number one excuse I hear for why people don’t test boundaries, try new things and put effort into ideas in which they’ve long wanted to invest is, “I’m too busy.” It’s a great excuse because it implies the reason we are not doing the thing we want to do is that we are productive, diligent hard-workers. This is much easier to contend with than that we are not feeling brave enough, talented enough or energetic enough to explore new paths.

Sometimes after a period of lots of activity, the lack of it actually scares me. It scares me because I know that without the distraction of being busy, I’m going to have time to assess. To think through where I’m expending energy and if there are things I’ve been procrastinating or avoiding. It’s when I run out of excuses not to do the harder, riskier things. And of course, any feelings I’ve buried in activity are going to have to be felt!

Stay attuned to what kind of busy you are. If it’s fulfilling, great, enjoy it! If it’s overwhelming, hang in there and look for what you can let go. If it’s draining, can you switch course or access something that will also fuel you? If it’s busyness distracting you from richer, more challenging work, then be brave, put down your to-do list and dig into the ambiguity and opportunity of unoccupied space and time.