Okay, you say, good theory: We think we're busy, but we're not—we're just doing one thing after another. But the habit of being convinced we're too busy is hard to shake. What can we do about this persistent mania of feeling task- and time-driven?
Understanding something differently is only a beginning. To change the way we live, we have to practice what we've come to understand until it becomes a natural part of us, a habit of thought, feeling, and body. There are many simple techniques that can help us with this. Take three conscious breaths (try it now, as you're reading). This will change your mind. Whatever you're feeling will become less compulsive, less driven. There's a measure of detachment and equanimity even after the first breath. You become more present to your surroundings, to the basic awareness of being alive. Try it the next time you're feeling overwhelmed; it doesn't take much time, and it will help you remember "the one who is not busy," the part of you that's always right there, even when it looks or feels like you're too busy.
Walking meditation—intentionally bringing awareness to your body as you move—can lift you out of a busy-ness-induced, semiconscious funk. If you can become conscious of the way you're moving and the sensation of each movement, you'll feel refreshed instead of rushed. I know what you're thinking: "I'm too busy to go for a walk." But this is something you can do on your way to and from the bathroom. (And if you're really feeling busy, you're probably overdue for a trip there anyway.)
Sometimes just a phrase can help: "Not busy." Remembering our two monks, you can say this softly to yourself when you feel overwhelmed. I do this when I feel crazed; with the repetition of the words, I immediately recognize that it is my feelings and my thoughts that make me feel pressured, not the tasks I have to do. They will get done—or not, and the world and I will survive. Even if I do have a crucial deadline, I'll have a much better chance of making it if I feel "not busy" and can proceed with a calm mind. Feeling frantic doesn't make me more efficient. Quite the contrary, it makes mistakes and glitches more likely.
It goes without saying that if you've bitten off more than you can chew in a day, or in a lifetime, you'd better step back and change your circumstances, if at all possible. Let go of a few activities: Peace of mind is more important, and healthier, than those few extra accomplishments. But if you can't or don't want to change your circumstances, you need to find the most serene and beautiful way to live the life you have. In the end, if you persistently and unpleasantly feel too busy, remember this: It's not a fact; it's a choice. There is one who is not busy. That one is you.
From the September 2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.