In 1945, a farmer in Colorado named Lloyd Olsen chopped the head off Mike, his prize chicken, because his mother-in-law wanted chicken and dumplings for dinner. Olsen was bad with an axe and, while he did remove most of Mike’s head, he completely missed the jugular vein and the brain stem. Since the brain stem controls most of a chicken’s basic functions and reflex actions, the now headless Mike danced about, preening his feathers and pecking for food.
Mike lived for another eighteen months. Without a head. Don’t believe me? Google Mike the headless chicken and check out the fascinating (and frankly disturbing) photos.
Now, when we’re trying to do too many things at once, we say that we are running around like a chicken with its head cut off. A headless chicken is manic and panicked, doing lots of things poorly but nothing well.
We’re like Mike. When I greet my yoga students, I always ask how they are. The vast majority of them answer, “Crazy busy.” We are all too busy, running around like headless chickens. But busy does not necessarily equal fulfilled. It does equal burnout, exhaustion and a mind that no longer knows how to decelerate.
Why do we do this? Perhaps it’s a result of the digital age. Technology has blurred the lines between work life and home life and we often feel as if we must be available at all moments of the day. The latest research says we now check our phones between 50-100 times each day. It can make us feel like we’re doing our part in staying on top of current events, but it can also severely drain our mental bandwidth.
For some, busy is a badge of honor, a gamble against emptiness. Busy says that we matter, that we have value. We equate being busy with being productive, though this is an illusion. Instead, it leaves us pecking for food when we no longer have a beak.
For others, we’re busy out of necessity. My friend Jason recently married the love of his life, but their blended family means they now have six kids. Six. Children. They have their own basketball team and still have to rotate someone in! Can you imagine how many soccer practices, dance recitals, church activities, school plays and doctor’s visits six kids must entail? The mind reels.
For most of us, busy is just a bad habit. We have trained our minds to require constant entertainment and stimulation, can no longer find peace in the restorative white noise of an idle moment. We stuff our minds and schedules and then complain that our lives feel empty and meaningless.
If we get some down time, many of us will actually create work for ourselves, no longer adept at resting. I once tried to talk my friend Travis into taking naps. “What a waste of time,” he replied. “I’d rather dig a hole.” He was completely serious. He would rather dig a hole than take a nap. He’s not alone. A famous social psychology study showed that people voluntarily chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit in an empty room for fifteen minutes alone with only their thoughts.
So how to stop glorifying busy? Firstly, we can outsource or delegate more than we think. I’m especially bad at this, but I’m working on it. My mind says that no one can do it as well as me, but I often end up feeling resentful that I have too many things on my plate. So I’m running around like Mike (Ack! I’ll never get all the things done!), but angry about it at the same time (why do I have to do everything myself?) Sound familiar? It’s time to loosen the reins and practice saying the words, “I need help.”
It’s also healthy to make ourselves unavailable sometimes. I turn off my phone every night at 7:30 and don’t check it until the next morning. When Izzie is out at night, David keeps his phone on until she’s home. Then he turns his phone off on the weekends (he has no social media presence and doesn’t answer work texts on weekends) while I keep mine on. This way, we both get a break from being available but can be reached in case of emergency.
Strengthen your “no” muscle. When someone asks something of you, practice the pause to see how it lands on your heart. If it isn’t a resounding “yes” in your heart, be very careful about what you agree to out of guilt or people-pleasing. A polite “no” protects your time, energy, and penny bank. Your “yesses” should be only to things that are aligned with your deepest values.
Mike lived without his head, but he constantly bumped into things, was panicked and confused. He was alive but it wasn’t living. May we know and honor the difference.