To Do List
by Addison Cooper, LCSW
I recently finished a day with everything crossed off my to-do list. That doesn’t happen very often for me. Maybe that was the first time. I’m wondering why it is that I always feel so busy. So busy, that it doesn’t feel quite right to not be busy. That it’s hard to take time to practice self-care, like exercising or relaxing. That it’s a discipline to spend time with friends.
A while ago, I thought about this in connection to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. His theory was that we have foundational needs and higher level needs, but that the higher level needs can’t be addressed until the lower level but more foundational needs are really met. I wonder if that might also provide some insight into how I might more healthily balance the multiple roles that I maintain. I’ve thought that it’d be important to address and nourish the roles that are the most foundational to my identity – Human Individual, Christian, Husband, Friend – and that if I nourished those, I’d be in a better spot to meet the needs of my more specialized but less foundational roles. If I exercise, pray, have regular dates with my wife, and hang out with my friends, I’ll probably be in a better spot – physically, mentally, emotionally, and energetically, to serve the clients that I have as a social worker, supervisor, and writer. And I think I’d experience less of a sense of being busy and overwhelmed.
It’s tempting to say that part of the reason I feel so busy is that social work is never done. That’s true; we’re doing important work that directly impacts folks’ lives. I’m not sure whether my writing impacts peoples’ lives, but I hope it does, and I want my writing to be current, fresh, and relevant. But I wonder if those aren’t just incidents of an underlying mindset that predisposes me to feeling overly busy. I hear something similar from other social workers, too – we often feel busy. Uncomfortably busy. Too busy. It might be something cultural, too. Maybe everyone feels busy.
But this article’s not about everyone. It’s about social workers – or, honestly, mostly about me. Why am I so busy? What is it about me that, when I’ve run out of things on my list for a day, makes me look ahead in my calendar to see what I can get a head start on? What makes me compile and keep lists of good ideas that turn into guilty reminders of good intentions that I haven’t yet carried out? Why is my Netflix queue so long?
More importantly, what’s the solution? How do I escape this atmosphere where “busy” is the defining word for the feeling of most days? I don’t think the answer is “have fewer good intentions.” I also don’t think the answer is “Get over it. Life is busy until you retire.” There’s got to be a middle ground.
I think the keys might be discipline and prioritization. Prioritization to help me honestly assess the big-picture importance of all the ideas that I have, and all the demands for time that I perceive. And discipline, to help me follow the wisdom that prioritization provides – even when doing so means that I might be delaying something fun or disappointing someone’s expectations.
I became a social worker because I want to be helpful to people, so in a real way, “social worker” me is a natural outgrowth of “real” me. I own both roles, because they are both me. The tendency of “social worker” me to be always busy is connected to the behaviors and thoughts of “real” me. It makes sense that the strengths (and the proclivity to being busy) that I have in my personal life are also reflected in my vocation. It’s not about the work so much as it is about the one doing the work.
So the responsibility lies with me – and not with my employer, or my clients, or my publishers, or “social work” in general, or even “the way the world is” – to develop a sense of un-busyness, through prioritization and discipline.
Why am I so busy? I guess it’s because of a mindset that I have, and the choices that I make. Which is really fortunate, because it means it's probably something I can fix.
Addison Cooper, LCSW, is a supervising social worker in a foster care and adoption agency, and is the founder of Adoption at the Movies (www.adoptionlcsw.com). His writing appears in The New Social Worker, Adoptive Families, Focus on Adoption, Foster Focus, Adoption Today and Fostering Families Today magazines. Addison lives outside of Los Angeles.