By Sarah Papineau

I have to pick up my kids after school by 5:30 p.m. If I get there late it costs me my normal rate plus a dollar a minute for child care. What if I have a meeting that runs late? A dollar a minute. If traffic is bad? A dollar a minute. Hit a water buffalo? A dollar a minute. Can you imagine being 10 minutes late or, heaven forbid, 30 minutes late due to unforeseen circumstances? There’s a decent price tag for that little delay. So you understand when I say that I have to pick up my kids by 5:30 p.m., that either me or my husband had better make it a serious priority to get there.

Life is busy and minutes matter. The cost of busyness might be money, time, stress or even relationships. Maybe you’re like me and wonder if the cost of busyness is too high. Is there a way in this fast-paced world to become less busy? Unbusy?

Unbusy is a curious word to me. It sounds completely awkward but is, in fact, a real word. My pal, Merriam-Webster says that unbusy is an adjective meaning, “not engaged or characterized by activity: not busy.” Awkward sounding examples follow the definition: an “unbusy afternoon,” an “unbusy road,” an “unbusy schedule.” Nowhere in the definition does it say lazy, irresponsible, incapable, inactive, unmotivated or sloth. It is neither evil nor good. It is simply not busy. I love the idea of living an unbusy life. This is officially my new favorite word.

I am determined to carry my unbusy mantra into the spring as a fresh start and have delved into research on strategies to clear space in my life. Numerous studies tell us that true multitasking is nearly impossible and actually reduces productivity. (Stanford and Rubenstein, Evans, and Meyer). In light of all this I have created some steps that I am taking to slow down, to avoid multitasking, to create space and to become less busy and therefore, more productive.

Unbusy Self

The most challenging thing about becoming less busy for me has been to realize that being busy has become part of my identity. When someone asks me how I am doing I usually answer, “Well! Busy, but well. How about you?” It is so easy to associate being busy with being productive or successful and I recognize that this is something that I have done. I was floored when I learned from Dr. Gloria Mark’s research (University of California) that the average professional employee checks their email 74 times during the day. That is 74 interruptions of train of thought, energy and effort. That number is absurd, and I was shocked to observe that I was very close to that average when I tracked myself checking email 58 times in a single day.

Have you stopped to observe habits that you have developed in your attempts to be productive in your day? Are they costing you in money, time, results or relationships? I encourage you to allot some time to thoughtfully observe your habits and set some goals and boundaries that may help you to create a new and unbusy self. Here is my list of areas where I have personally set expectations and boundaries toward this goal:

1. Check email once an hour while at work and only twice the rest of the night. That’s it.

2. Stop carrying my phone in my hand to deter mindlessly checking it. Put in in my pocket if I need it with me.

3. Write a to-do list, but only tackle the top three items. Once those are done, reevaluate the list to identify the next three real priorities.

4. Create a realistic schedule with ample room on either side of appointments, calls, etc., to give you time to breathe, stretch, laugh and reset.

5. Add personal priorities to calendars as though they are appointments. To paraphrase the pastor and leadership expert Andy Stanley, we all work in jobs where we could be replaced in a short amount of time. Work hard and with commitment, but place the highest value on your family as you are unique and irreplaceable to them.

6. Create space with some personal time to focus on being a better person. Meditation or contemplation exercises might sound hokey, but research says that they can be very helpful in feeling less stressed and busy. There are some great apps out there. Headspace and Wysa are a couple to explore. Getting in a workout or family walk can also be helpful to clear your head and decompress.

7. Need a boost? Get your bloodwork checked. Many people aren’t living life with a full tank and feel like they can’t keep up anymore. Are you low on essential vitamins,  minerals and nutrients like vitamin D, potassium, omega-3 rich fish oil, etc.? As an example, research says that 80 percent of people are likely to be low in magnesium, as I found that I was. This mineral helps your body work properly, builds strong bones, fights inflammation, protects your heart, prevents migraines, lowers the chance of getting diabetes, and plays a big part in reducing fatigue. Stress from being overly busy can sap your level of magnesium. I encourage you to do a simple bloodwork test and see if your doctor recommends specific supplementation that can help you give your best, healthy self to those you love.

Unbusy Family

In our family we place great emphasis on character, building relationships and raising well-rounded children. However, that sounds like a Hallmark greeting card when an average school night looks something like this:

Pick up kids by 5:30 p.m. Give snack and change of clothes to son on the way to basketball practice that will end at 7 p.m. Do homework with other son during practice. Check email then drive home. Work on more homework while starting dinner: 11 math corrections, study for science quiz, sauté onions, add garlic, spelling pre-test, read for 15 minutes. Log reading on Six Flags reading sheet so kid can earn a free ticket, fill out fundraiser paper and write check, add pasta and stir. Switch laundry, stop a brawl over who was petting the dog first. Make sauce. Check email. Get the kids to set the table and serve dinner. Eat, clear dishes and load dishwasher while kids pack backpacks. Let dog out, start showers, enforce the “Yes, you must wear underwear” rule. Say prayers, get the kids to sleep and sit on the couch and stare at the black screen of the powerless TV for at least two minutes. Check email. Go to bed.

My observation of my busy family life is that I’m not sure there was any time spent at all on this particular day on an “emphasis on character, building relationships or raising well-rounded children.” If our family desires to be more of an unbusy family, we’ve agreed that we have to reduce the cost to our relationships by doing the following:

• Drop the expectations, the comparisons to others and give ourselves grace if we need to drop something or say no. We can’t do everything and we can’t do everything well. If a family looks like they have it all together on social media, they’re probably spending too much time working to look good on social media.

• Limit activities Monday-Friday as we only get a few hours with each other at best.

• Prioritize conversation at dinner. We’ve always made dinner together an important part of our night as research says it is vital family time. However, we are not always intentional with our conversations. We will enforce a no technology rule at the table and put some effort into what we talk about. Find age-appropriate conversation starters at sites like to kickstart your discussions and to keep learning about each other. 

• Spend a few minutes playing, laughing and being silly every day. Laughter brings people together.

Unbusy Classroom

Does your classroom feel chaotic or is it a calm escape from the things going on outside your four walls? You know better than anyone how your room feels. I encourage you to pause and observe what your environment is like this week. Make notes on what times in the day feel calm and productive and which times feel busy, stressful or chaotic. When are students agitated? Are there transitions that change the mood of the room? What are the costs of not addressing these things?

Noting how things feel and the time of day or circumstances around these shifts can help you determine how or when to give attention to the busyness in your room. Here are some suggestions that you could consider exploring to create an unbusy classroom:

1. Look at your schedule and lesson plans and compare them to your notes about how you observed that your classroom feels. Are there correlations between what you are doing and the feel of your room? Are there adjustments that you can make? Are you allowing ample time for transition? Are you giving cues to students that a transition will occur? For example, “We have five minutes before we’ll be lining up for P.E. Please continue your good work until that time.”

2. Pay attention to your own voice. Speaking softly and calmly can lead the entire room to lower their noise level and bring their attention to you. Whispering can have a great impact on the class as it’s a dramatic change in volume and draws interest. It can also be used effectively in a redirection, “James, we had a talk about keeping our hands to ourselves yesterday. Please remember to do that so we can continue with the activity.” Have you considered using a register lower than your normal speaking voice in the classroom? Lower, deeper, richer voices have a different impact on listeners and can be very effective at maintaining attention and keeping students engaged.

3. Create an ambience in your classroom that cues students to the fact that they are entering an unbusy and calm learning space. For example, have Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 playing softly each morning when students arrive. Use a very light citrus scent or peppermint scent to help them to focus in the morning. Lavender may help to calm them during the times when you found them to be agitated. Less is more when it comes to scents. Please check for allergies or no-scent rules in your handbook first.

4. Bring nature into your classroom. A University of Michigan study showed a 20 percent increase in the retention ability of subjects who had contact with plants. Australia’s University of Technology, Sydney, did a study that showed measurable improvements in spelling, math, and science in plant-rich classrooms. Texas A&M’s study showed that the effect of nature in the home and workplace stimulates the senses and the mind leading to improved cognition and performance. Better performance, attention gains, improved behavior and fewer absences were shown in numerous studies and lend to bringing plants into the classroom. Be aware of allergies in your room and choose non-toxic varieties of course.

5. Find great resources for keeping a calm and peaceful classroom at sites such as

6. Teach students how to relax. Kids are highly stressed and anxious and we could all do better at equipping them with skills to reduce stress, relax and leave margin in their schedules.

It’s ironic that becoming less busy requires work and research as it seems to be just one more thing to add to our to-do lists. However, the cost of being busy can be very high. Becoming aware that we are overly scheduled and stressed, and realizing that there are simple changes we could make that would help us feel less busy, is a freeing proposition. There is a ripple effect as well. There are no better champions for change than teachers and parents because you impact so many people in the work you do. The effort it takes to encourage ourselves and others to pursue an unbusy life is minimal and could produce lasting changes that improve the quality of life of those in our circle of influence and beyond. Now get busy getting unbusy!

Sarah Papineau is a field service coordinator with the Missouri State Teachers Association. She is a huge fan of educators and the selfless work that they do and has supported them in a variety of roles over the last 19 years. She is a wife, busy mom and is annoyingly optimistic in her belief that things can always be better.