In the last few weeks, I’ve heard the word, “busy” floated around several times. “I’ve been busy” is the common default answer – as if verbalizing the exact opposite is blasphemous. Busy has morphed into a non-word, much like nice or amazing. When I say I am “busy” what am I representing about myself and does this mean I am engaging in activities I don’t enjoy?

The day-to-day work of waking up, making meals, helping our children get to school, answering questions from our partners, driving to the grocery store doesn’t necessarily fall into the category of “busy.” This is the cadence of living a life. In my twenties, I fell into the trap of labeling these tasks as “busy.” I created errands on the weekends, bragging my Saturdays and Sundays were “busy.” What I didn’t tell people is I often woke in the middle of the night, experiencing full-blown panic attacks – thinking about an unfinished legal document or the fear my boss wouldn’t be pleased with a memo I had written. It amounted to a life I didn’t enjoy, but I understand how it appeared as a fulfilled, successful and busy career.

It took witnessing a crisis to understand the difference between an intentional versus a busy life. When I watched my father die in my mid-thirties, I understood the change that needed to take place in my life. Was I filling my time with what I enjoyed? Did I feel a sense of empowerment moving from one thing to the next, without really absorbing any of these experiences? What did an intentional life look like? It took a set of transitions, the death of my father, the birth of my daughter, a move to another state and a release of career that didn’t work to understand how to carve out an intentional life.

I looked at the corners of my life and sat with them, breathing in the dust and asking over and over, the same question – how did I want to live the rest of my moments? Did I want to keep hustling in the frantic pace filled with anxiety and restlessness? Or did I want to sink into the array of my experiences, learning from the bitter lessons and rejoicing in the joyful times? The answer, of course, blared in surround sound. Yes, I wanted to embrace intentional living, instead of reacting to my life.

I intersected with a piece from Zen Habits by Leo Babauta where he talks to Jonathan Fields, author of How to Live a Good Life: Soulful Stories, Surprising Science and Practical Wisdom and questions him on what it means to live a deliberate life. He says in part:

Busyness has become a bit of a lightning rod. In one camp, we’ve got busyness as a status symbol of hustle and achievement (though, often it’s neither). In the other, we have busyness as a signpost of failure and surrender.

Truth is, I’ve come to see busyness as more of a symptom of a bigger problem, rather than a cause. Being busy, alone, need not be a bad thing. What makes it good or bad is why we’re busy, what we’re busy with, and what we’re giving up along the way.

Being busy as a reaction to the compounding agendas others, to what they’ve chosen to heap into our lives, without considering whether any of it matters to us, that’s a problem. It drops us into a state of mindless autopilot busyness, reacting rather than responding. It leaves us watching our lives fill with unrelenting pace, screaming past us, without ever stopping to choose what matters, be present, cultivate meaning, joy, connection and vitality, and experience each moment through the lense of choice and presence. We end up busy without a cause, and it leaves us utterly gutted. Empty.

Being busy from a place of meaning and intention, though, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If our days, weeks, months and life are populated by a stream of experiences, activities and people that keep us engaged much of every day, including things like moving our bodies, sitting in meditation, expressing our voices, engaging our strengths, deepening into service and meaning, working and playing with people we cannot get enough of, choosing only what truly lifts us up and matters deeply, we end up crafting a life of intention, joy, vitality and meaning. Are we busy along the way? Yes! But, that type of busyness leaves us full, not empty.

These words resonated with me. In the last five years, I’ve focused on how to fill my time with the events and interactions that ring true for me. I’ve surrendered to a life that is ordinary, giving up the crazy pace of having a “busy” hollow life. The intentional life doesn’t seem glamorous or revenue-driven, but it’s rich with choices of waking up and living every single moment on my terms.