Alastair Humphreys
The Epidemic Of Busyness
Alastair Humphreys is a British Adventurer and Author. He has been on expeditions all around the world, travelling through over 80 countries by bicycle, boat and on foot. He was named as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the year for 2012. He has written 12 books.

You can connect with Alastir through his newsletters, podcasts, books and watching his talk on Living Adventurously  You can find him on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

This is an era of insanity. We have become lunatics, suffering under an epidemic of busyness. When did anyone last say, ‘gosh, I don’t really have anything to do today.’

If you’re reading this on your phone, I know you’ve checked social media or email in the past five minutes. If you’re listening to my dulcet tones, I bet you’ve cranked me up to double speed. And if you’re reading a paper book, you’re probably on the loo. So much for my beloved literary masterpiece…We are all too frantic to be able to savour life or focus on the important things. And we live in a society that applauds the wildest ball jugglers. ‘Yowzers, I’m so busy,’ we boast, pretending not to be gleeful if we win the busiest person contest. At its heart, being busy makes us feel important and necessary. Most of us (except for those who are saving lives or cleaning streets) are not really either of those things. But it is nicer to think that we are. When I ran a poll on Twitter asking why people don’t leave the office at 5pm, 45% answered ‘because nobody else does’. But everyone wants to go home then, even the boss. It’s bonkers. (28% said they’d be reprimanded. But this is all a topic for a different book. I’ll get back to minding my own business…)

An hour spent at work is equivalent to trading an hour of your life for some cash. It is worth pausing occasionally to consider that exchange (ideally at work when you might get paid for the pause). Do you enjoy your work? Or is it a pragmatic necessity that you must accept and make the best of? How much would you pay for an hour of life? How much do you earn per hour? Is this a fair/good/unavoidable swap? Could you earn more for that hour of your life? Could you work fewer hours?

We face demands on our time outside of work as well: the things we have to do, those we ought to, and hopefully some things that we want to do. Throw in additional family commitments or partners with different priorities, and this can all tighten into nooses of resentment. I am surprised how many emails I receive along those lines. How can we claw back some time to live a little more adventurously every day? A good starting point is to work out where the time goes. We all begin each day with the same 24 hours to spend. Once we pay attention to the breakdown of our days, we can look for opportunities to cut out the junk and live a bit more adventurously. For example, which of these do you deem acceptable ways of being busy?

  • Saving the world?
  • Changing the world?
  • Getting rich?
  • Chasing dreams?
  • Raising a family?
  • Keeping your boss happy?
  • Not letting people down?
  • Having fun?

Here are some other questions I have asked myself at various times. If you wish you can think of it as The Acme Busyness Scale, by busyness guru Alastair Humphreys.

  • Am I too busy to move to Africa for a year?
  • Am I too busy to cross Iceland for a month?
  • Am I too busy to go biking in Scotland for a week?
  • Am I too busy to camp out this weekend?
  • Am I too busy to climb a small hill with somebody I love and watch the sunset?
  • Am I too busy to go for a run at lunchtime?
  • Am I too busy to swim in a river before breakfast?
  • Am I too busy to climb a tree for ten minutes?
  • Am I too busy to read my kids a bedtime story?
  • Am I too busy for life?

Which number are you on an equivalent list in your own life? Which level is acceptable, necessary, desirable or dutiful? Which level suggests priorities gone wrong and a heartbreaking waste? Inevitably, the packed nature of our lives means that pursuing your individual passion demands compromise or cutbacks somewhere else. Many of us – me very much included – feel guilty and selfish about this. We worry that it is not fair on our family to crave some space for ourselves. It is a very individual conundrum. All I will say as a generalisation is that it is important to invest in yourself as well as everybody else. Making the most of your own life can also make you a better role model for those around you.

There are a mere 168 hours in a week. This used to scare, sadden and infuriate me, even back when I could pour 70, 80, 90 hours directly into the stuff I loved. I used to chase the clock and rage and grasp at the altar of getting things done. It drove me to the brink of madness. We certainly should use our time wisely. But we also need to accept that we cannot do everything. The way you choose to spend your time will be different from me. The percentage of time you dedicate to trying new things and stretching yourself will differ. There is no magic number. But there is probably a realistic golden mean to aspire to somewhere between excess and deficiency.  At long, long, long last – thank goodness – I have learned that if ever I think I am too busy to climb a hill and watch the sunset, or too busy to go for a bike ride in the woods, then what I really need to do is climb a hill and watch the sunset or go for a bike ride in the woods. And to hell with the emails. What are the equivalent tipping points in your own life that ought to be non-negotiable? Life is busy. But it is also for living. You’ll never have a life as good as this one again: make the most of it.

Over to You: Mark up a table with how you use the 168 hours in a typical week. Each square represents one hour.

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