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Is Busyness Habitual?

Boarding schools are busy places. I was reminded of this during a recent campus event. I was there to help coordinate a student leadership event. For the 24 hours I spent on campus, I found myself sliding easily back into the old habits of busyness. From just about the moment I stepped foot out of my car I was on the move. Hustling here and there, setting up tables, laying out supplies, welcoming guests to campus, assigning students their various tasks, and so on and so on.

As I was bouncing to and fro, a colleague who I have known for quite a while introduced me to a newer faculty member at the school with whom I had not worked in my previous life in boarding. “Just like old times. Jackie is on the move and getting it done!” It was a comment filled with kind intentions and one that made me a little sad. That constant movement, that non-stop work, and the familiar decision fatigue that was already settling in were all hugely contributing factors in my decision to not only leave a school but boarding schools in general. I burned out, and this particular day flooded me with memories of exactly what led to my departure.

It is true that there are structural and systemic issues at boarding schools that are leading to high rates of burnout. It is also true that being busy is a habit that is hard to break. I managed to break it - at least for a while. And yet a close friend pointed out to me recently that I am back to being just as busy. Two businesses to run. Two volunteer committees in town. Coaching youth sports. I've just been asked to join the board of my local Chamber of Commerce. The same state of busyness was starting to set in yet again.

Now I know that there are people who truly do like to be busy. I always identified as one of them. Lately, I have started to question whether my own busyness is out of happiness or habitual. I am starting to think it is another lesson from boarding school that I have carried into my adult life. I don't offer this with any resentment, but I do hold concerns about this idea of busyness.

It's something that comes up with a lot of coaching clients and in conversations with colleagues. And, admittedly, many of the solutions we work through are temporary measures - not cultural or systemic corrections. There are steps we busy people can take to regain some calm: we can delegate (which we hate doing for a lot of reasons), we can use time more efficiently (if only we had some time to overhaul our systems), we can say no to some extras (unless the community really, really needs me).

This problem is evident: busy people don’t always know what to do when they do open some time. At boarding school, not being busy can be uncomfortable for many who exist in a culture that celebrates the hustle (“Look at Jackie go! What a hard worker!”). Busy people fill their time, sometimes with joy-creating, cup-filling activities, and sometimes not. This is exactly why I often find myself asking my clients “what have you done for yourself lately?” and giving a lot of permission to slow down a little while our institutions sort out our priorities and give great educators the time and space to be amazing for our communities and healthy for themselves.

As any educator can attest, being busy can feel satisfying - at least for a moment. But, the darker side of busyness - burnout, apathy, anxiety, frustration - catches up to us all. Slowing down ultimately gives us space to be better at our jobs, show up for our community in a more genuine way, and feel more satisfied in our day-to-day.


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