The Unbusy Manifesto: How to slow down, chill out, and live life more intentionally

It’s all about choices.
It’s all about choices.
Image: Reuters/John Javellana
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When did we stop choosing our lives and begin surrendering to them? Half-living each day as a reaction to the constant barrage of never-ending to-do lists, social obligations, work functions, status updates, and more? Pummeled by reactive, autopilot busyness, rather than living life as an expression of who we really are? Of what matters most. Of that delicious, brilliant, soulful, sexy, and vital part of us that yearns not only to see the light of day, but also to be seen. To be heard. To be relished, loved, embraced, held. Celebrated.

We relent, and react. We give up control in micro doses, one teeny, seemingly harmless morsel at a time, feeding ourselves to the voracious demands and appetites of pace without purpose until we wake up years later—if we wake up—only to discover we are suffering deeply. Breathlessly busy without a pause, without a cause.

Not acting with intention, but reacting from the moment we open our eyes to the moment we lay our heads fitfully down on the pillow. Increasingly, we find ourselves wrecked, living with an undiagnosed condition: Reactive Life Syndrome (RLS, for short).

Everything would be better, we think, if we could just get a moment. An hour. A day. A week. To breathe. To choose. Yet the pace we’ve surrendered to holds us hostage. And we just don’t see a way out. We may even tell ourselves, “Hey, it’s not so bad.” But is that truth speaking, or futility?

Even if it’s not hit a breaking point yet, we’ve got to ask ourselves, “Am I OK with where this is heading?” Because with every waking moment, we are creating a trajectory with our lives. There is no sideways. What we feel as nagging now will eventually become gnawing and, left to fester, will take us down and then out. It’s just a matter of time. Left untreated, the seeds of the condition always mushroom into full-blown RLS. We end up being dragged through life, rather than living it.

Even worse, individuals and organizations all too often wear busyness as a badge of honor. Reactive busyness, pace without a purpose, taking on more than the next person without regard to whether it really matters is how we’re taught we get ahead. Except, it’s a lie. Reactive Life Syndrome is not a badge of honor: It is a symptom of surrender.

If we continue to relent—to react, rather than reclaim—that choice and everything that flows from it, that is entirely on us. The responsibility to step into a place of awareness and intention—to flip the switch from being controlled to being in control, to free ourselves from the weight of RLS—is ours.

What if, for the first time in a long time, we opened to the possibility of a different reality? One where we reclaimed and crafted each day rather than reacted and surrendered them to the never-ending demands of others? What if we bridged the gap from reactive and repressed to intentional and alive? What if we chose what mattered, we set the pace, we decided who to work with, to play with, to create with, to partner with, to give to, to be in service of? What if we crafted and celebrated each moment, not from a place of a constant catching-up frenzy, but of grounded intention. Of lightness. Of joy.

What if we could breathe again? Not just now. But tomorrow. And the next day. And the next. Moving through life with a sense of not only purpose and connection, but grace and ease.

There’s got be another way. There is another way. And it starts on the deepest level: belief. Because until we shift our beliefs to support a different reality, we’ll never do what’s necessary to get there.

But in order to manifest it, to inoculate ourselves against reinfection, we need to play a part in our own recovery. It’s not enough to believe. It’s not enough to know. We’ve got to act. To take the first step in our journey back to an intentional, connected, vital, meaningful, lit-up life.

Step one is to wake up to the truth of our reality; to the level of frenetic, purposeless pace that’s ended up guiding so much of each day. For so many, this “inciting incident” never comes: We just keep on keeping on, driven by a certain willful blindness. Wondering why, when, and how things will ever get better, yet, never doing anything to extract ourselves from the process.

For others, this awakening comes only in the darkest hour. When the weight of relentlessly living for everyone but yourself finally breaks you, and you’re forced to confront the gap between the life you claim to hold dear, and the one you’ve slipped into.

Once the pattern has been interrupted, though, then what?

Now, it’s time to rebuild. But how? How do you reassemble the pieces from a place of awareness and intention? How do you reconnect with what matters? How do you know where and when and what to focus your energies on to step back into a place of power and possibility?

Step One: Cultivate Awareness

This essay is designed to be your awareness wake up call; an inciting incident that shakes you from living by default into owning the possibility and responsibility to choose your behavior from this moment forward. To remove yourself from the weight of Reactive Life Syndrome.

But the essay alone is not enough. Decades of autopilot life leave deep grooves in your brain. It takes effort to change the patterns, to lay down and deepen new, more intentional pathways. This happens over time by cultivating a sustained awareness practice. One that gives us ability to consistently zoom the lens out throughout the day and notice when we’re relenting rather than intending, then choose differently.

We cannot be intentional—to choose and act in ways that reclaim control and possibility—until we become aware of where and when we’re being reactive. As my dear friend, meditation teacher, and founder of the Open Heart Project, Susan Piver, recently offered, “Unless you feel your own heart, you won’t know which gesture is kindness.”

Without awareness, there can be no intention. Without intention, you lose the ability to choose what matters, and refuse what does not.

So how do you cultivate sustained awareness? Here are two big awareness levers:

Cultivate a daily mindfulness practice: The crippling symptoms of Reactive Life Syndrome have led to pervasive and deep suffering, and it’s only getting worse as life gets busier and technology makes it harder to step away and be aware and intentional. A simple daily mindfulness practice is “doable” by anyone—yes, even you.

It’s simple, though not always easy. And, over time, it rewires your brain to become more consistently mindful and aware of both your circumstances and the thoughts and stories you’re telling yourself about those circumstances. That lays the foundation for intention.

Create awareness triggers: Leverage technology to deliver intermittent awareness prompts. We’ve seen so much about how technology is making us less mindful. Well, by getting a bit creative, we can actually harness it to train our brains to become more mindful and aware.

How? Simple. Grab your smart-mobile device. If you happen to use a wearable tracking device, or any mobile device that is programmable, that can do. Find the timer/alarm function and set it to vibrate at set times throughout the day. You can either do it once an hour or at random times. Just be sure you set at least 12 alerts a day, and of course, only during waking hours. It may take a few minutes to set that up, but once you’re done, just set the alerts to recur every day, and you’re good to go.

Then, every time you feel the vibe alert, take a moment to focus your awareness on that moment, get present. Notice where you are and what you’re doing. Really drink it all in: the motion, the scene, the scent, the sound, the feel. This will begin to train your brain to keep going back to this place of mindful awareness over time, without the need of the vibe alert. Eventually, you can just turn off the alerts and know you’ll be consistently more aware throughout the day.

Now the question is: What do you do with your newfound awareness?

Step Two: Cultivate Intention

That moment when you realize that you get to choose, that’s where intention steps in—where you get to decide to go left or right, to hold or fold, to love or leave, to say yes or no. This what it means to be intentional: to own the responsibility for the state of your life and meet any opportunity to allocate your time, energy, and attention with a deliberate choice, rather than a surrender of will.

When it comes to eliminating RLS and its pernicious symptoms from your life, a simple rule applies: You choose or you lose. So being intentional is all about choosing choice as your default and owning the outcomes, good or bad. It’s about taking an “artisanal” approach to life, weaving it into a tapestry that tells a story that makes you say, “This is my good life.”

It’s not enough to nod your head along with everything you’ve just learned and say, “Yes! I get it. I want it! I’m ready!” A good life is lived, not dreamed. Teaching, mentoring, and working with thousands of people, I’ve learned a simple truth: The first step is the hardest, going from stuck to in motion. Once you’re on the move, it’s easier to build on the momentum and bridge the gap from reactive and empty to intentional and full.

The choice is yours. Will you choose, or continue to lose?