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These 3 habits are making you feel overly busy—and it's easy to unlearn them

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Twenty/20

The unread emails in your inbox. The perpetual work meetings. That nagging to-do list that won't do itself. 

You probably don't need a statistic to prove how busy you are, but here's a quick one: A 2012 McKinsey study found the average professional spends 28% of their workday just replying to emails.

Those emails aren't going away anytime soon. Still, don't despair. Dorie Clark, a leadership expert and former presidential campaign spokesperson, says lots of people are just looking at busyness the wrong way.

When asked why they feel so overworked, most people cite external causes, like those incessant emails or constant Zoom calls. In a May TED Talk, Clark argued those are merely manifestations of busyness — not necessarily the root causes.

Understanding that distinction is the key to breaking yourself free of the stressful busyness loop, she added: We all say we'd love to have less on our plates, and yet we often make choices that keep us as occupied as we've always been.

Clark identified three central reasons why people choose to feel busy, and examining their presence in your own life is a useful first step towards reclaiming your time.

Achieving a status symbol

Feeling busy makes us feel important. Clark pointed to a Columbia Business School study that illuminates why this phenomenon persists.

In the study, researchers analyzed the way people perceived status based on signals of busyness, finding that Americans increasingly view those who are overworked and constantly busy as possessing higher social status.

Unlearning something as societally entrenched as an obsession with work won't happen overnight. That's fine, but Clark wants people to at least start identifying the harms of this subliminal practice.

"When we say, 'Oh, I am so crazy busy,' what we're really saying is a societally-accepted version of 'I am so important! I am so popular! I am so in demand!'" Clark said. "And the truth is that feeling can be hard to give up, even if we say that we want to."

Avoiding uncertainty

Human brains are notoriously averse to ambiguity, and many of us use busywork as a way to avoid uncertainty, Clark said.

Uncertainty, particularly at work, can quite literally be bad for your health. And it's a common stressor: The American Psychological Association's 2022 Stress in America Survey found 81% of Americans reported global uncertainty as a primary cause of stress.

But uncertainty is baked into life itself, and trying to skirt it by intentionally keeping busy ends up compounding stress — the very thing you're trying to avoid.

"Sometimes we are given tasks or challenges, and the truth is, tactically, we just don't know how to do it. 'Increase sales by 30 percent.' Well, how?" Clark said.

Doubling down on what you're used to doing instead "might not be the best answer, but it's an answer, and it removes uncertainty," she added.

This primal urge to avoid uncertainty — even when it means staying busy when you don't want to — only ramps up when facing deeper questions, like pondering whether or not you're in a career that genuinely makes you happy.

"Those are often questions, truth be told, we might not want the answer to. And so we become busy ... so that we don't even have to ask the question," Clark said.

Numbness

Sometimes, people try to drown out their problems with work. 

Clark cited losing her cat Gideon in 2013 as a prime illustration: Realizing Gideon wouldn't be waiting for her at home made it easier for her to turn work into her entire life. 

"For two years, my life basically was an Uber to an airport, to a hotel and back again, because I just really didn't want to face that," Clark said. "For a lot of us, there are things we sometimes don't want to face. What we're really looking for with work is an anesthetic." 

It's a common impulse, but not a "sustainable solution," Clark said.

Breaking the busyness cycle

If you've recognized any of these three root causes of busyness in yourself, you're in luck: You can benefit by simply noticing them as they appear, Clark said.

"We have to really get honest about what it is that's motivating us so that we can make a different choice," she said. "Because it is about our choice. We need to recognize that real freedom is about creating space so that we can breathe [and] think." 

Want to earn more and work less? Register for the free CNBC Make It: Your Money virtual event on Dec. 13 at 12 p.m. ET to learn from money masters like Kevin O'Leary how you can increase your earning power.

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