As I foreshadowed on Sunday, there is a lot of value in staying busy.

Our minds don’t truly task-share; they task-switch. Try this: call to mind the most worrisome task on your to-do list. Now picture a bear wearing a pink tutu performing a flawless pirouette. Did you forget all you troubles? Forget all your cares? At least for a little while? You can’t hold worry and a new thought1 in your head at the same time.2 It’s time to delight in our one-track minds.

When we are not busy, our minds tend to become a near-vacuum. Every student of physics knows that “nature abhors a vacuum.” The nearest thing to a vacuum that you and I will probably ever see is the inside of an incandescent electric-light bulb. Break that bulb—and nature forces air in to fill the theoretically empty space.

Nature also rushes in to fill the vacant mind. With what? Usually with emotions. Why? Because emotions of worry, fear, hate, jealousy, and envy are driven by primeval vigor and the dynamic energy of the jungle. Such emotions are so violent that they tend to drive out of our minds all peaceful, happy thoughts and emotions.3

These emotions enter the mind easily, but they depart unwillingly. It’s best to crowd them out with other thoughts.

Admiral Byrd discovered this same truth when he lived all alone for five months in a shack that was literally buried in the great glacial icecap that covers the South Pole—an icecap that holds nature’s oldest secrets— an icecap covering an unknown continent larger than the United States and Europe combined. Admiral Byrd spent five months there alone. No other living creature of any kind existed within a hundred miles. The cold was so intense that he could hear his breath freeze and crystallize as the wind blew it past his ears. In his book Alone, Admiral Byrd tells all about those five months he spent in bewildering and soul-shattering darkness. The days were as black as the nights. He had to keep busy to preserve his sanity.

“At night,” he says, “before blowing out the lantern, I formed the habit of blocking out the morrow’s work. It was a case of assigning myself an hour, say, to the Escape Tunnel, half an hour to leveling drift, an hour to straightening up the fuel drums, an hour to cutting bookshelves in the walls of the food tunnel, and two hours to renewing a broken bridge in the man-hauling sledge. . . .

‘It was wonderful,” he says, “to be able to dole out time in this way. It brought me an extraordinary sense of command over myself….” And he adds, “Without that or an equivalent, the days would have been without purpose; and without purpose they would have ended, as such days always end, in disintegration.”4

Just like yesterday, we have an extreme example. I like extreme examples, because when you see a technique working in the margins, it’s easier to trust it will work in daily life.

Next time you’re overwhelmed, try using busy-ness to clear your mind.

This post is one part in a series on worry. Feel free to dip in anywhere or start at the beginning.

  1. Particularly a new, or novel thought. New, or novel work is likewise better than routine tasks at banishing worry. ↩︎

  2. Unless you’re actually a dancing bear trainer and your main stress right now is an upcoming performance. ↩︎

  3. How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie, p. 72. ↩︎

  4. Carnegie, p.74. ↩︎