Is Competitive Busyness Taking Over Your Life?

'We've been programmed to take a weird pride in how busy we are'


by Rebecca Holman |
Updated on

Here are a number of things that people warned me change in your relationship when you have children. The lack of quality time as a couple, the end of spontaneity, a wardrobe entirely made up of snot-covered jogging bottoms for the next five years. But what no one mentioned was how political the phrases ‘I’m so busy’ and ‘I’m so tired’ would become.

Now, all my husband needs to do is yawn at the wrong moment (any time after 7pm, most days of the week) to send me into a spiral. After all, I’m supposed to be the tired one – I’m a working mother! And if he’s tired, then I might have to forgo a lie-in and some time to myself this weekend, so he gets a rest and a break from looking after our son. If he’s tired, then I should offer to do bathtime even though it isn’t my turn. But, on the other hand, I’m so tired, and I deserve this, right? (‘This’ being 10 minutes quality time unloading the dishwasher.)

Since having a baby, and certainly since we both returned to full-time work, I’ve felt more tired and busier than I have in my entire life. There’s nothing like the soul-crushing fatigue of an 18-month sleep regression when you both have to be at your desks by 8.30 the next morning. Even with a full night’s sleep, every second of your waking day is accounted for 95% of the time. The fact that there’s two of us means we can halve that load. But the flipside is, if one of us wants, or needs, a rest, a day off or a lie-in, the other person’s load effectively doubles. Which is why, when you’ve had the work week from hell, you’re dragging yourself to Friday night and your partner announces that they’re so tired that they really need a lie-in the next day, your first instinct is to wail, ‘But what about meeeee?’

It’s a race to the bottom that feels utterly toxic, but we’re not alone. A friend of mine once had a stand-up row with her husband over who had done the 3am night feed after he failed to get up with their daughter in the morning. They were both absolutely convinced they’d been the one to get up in the night, until she suggested they look at the sleep data on his smart watch, which revealed that he’d had a solid 12 hours shut-eye the night before.

Conversely, we’ve become programmed to take a weird pride in how busy we are.

It’s not just a phenomenon unique to relationships – it’s hard to avoid competitive busyness creeping into every conversation I now have with my friends. I’m a prime offender, constantly banging on about how rushed off my feet I am, and how exhausted I feel as an excuse for my absence (‘so sorry I haven’t been in touch, I’ve been sooooo swamped’) or, in my worst moments, as a rebuke to the friends I deem less busy than I am for not making more of an effort themselves. It’s part status raising, part cry for help, and it leaves us all feeling more wrung out than we did before.

For me and my husband, competitive busyness revolves around work. There’s a crunch point at 5.30pm where we have to decide who’s the most stretched and who just about has time to do the nursery pick-up and play with our son until bathtime. That hour with him is the highlight of my day, but I also know that if I don’t have a good reason why I need to be chained to my desk for that extra hour, I’ll be back on my laptop after bedtime or playing constant catch-up the next day. So we both make our case – whether we’ve been ‘landed in it’ with a report that needs to be in first thing the following morning, or ‘been in back-to-back meetings since 9am’ with an inbox that’s a mess – we need to prove that we’re the busiest, and our busyness must take precedence.

It is, of course, a vicious circle, points out clinical psychologist Linda Blair, because once we get tired, or become angry because we feel like we’re unfairly picking up the load, we start making bad decisions about how to deal with it. ‘There’s a little gland behind your left ear, called the amygdala.

It controls the brain if you get emotional,’ she explains. ‘You get emotional when you’re too tired and it will cause you to make decisions that are very selfish and short-term.’ The answer, of course, is to avoid getting too tired or wrung-out in the first place. Linda also strongly recommends getting a babysitter if you possibly can and making an effort to go out on your own with your partner once a fortnight. Even if you use that time to hash out your issues, doing it over a nice dinner is a million times better than a row in the middle of the living room, while both your work laptops ping in the background.

Still, easier said than done. Now that Christmas is coming, diaries are filling up and end-of-year deadlines are looming, I can feel the pressure mounting even more. So how to avoid it all turning toxic? Often, all we’re doing when we reach these pressure points is asking for help – and no one else is going to carve out time or set boundaries for us. We have to put our own oxygen masks on first, and it becomes important to remember that at times of high pressure. Equally, there’s a balance to be had between making sure we get what we need and being kind and considerate to those around us – because chances are, they’re feeling exactly the same way. We’re never going to reach a perfect state of busyness where we have just enough time to do everything we want and need. But maybe, with life only getting busier, we all need to stop wearing our busyness like a mantle of pride, when it’s just holding us back from living our lives.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us