The chances are high that your response would be ‘busy’. Most of us today lead hectic lives, crunching through emails, racing between meetings and juggling competing demands. Overwhelmed by it all, our busyness can come to dominate our work, lives and relationships. Yet, however much we have to do, I don’t think our workload explains how often we tell people we’re busy. I think there is more at play here.
The first possible explanation for our tireless desire to discuss our exhaustion is the need for acknowledgement. We live in a world of too much demand: our organizations demand more from us; our families want more from us; we are always on the go, and always on call. Despite our heroic efforts, we can’t escape the feeling that we’re not achieving as we’d hoped at work; we feel guilty that we’re not the parent or partner we want to be; and disappointment that our lives have become so frenetically humdrum. We are helpless victims and we just want to be heard: we want our super-human endeavours recognized and our failings understood in the context of the impossibility of the challenge.
I think we’ve got it wrong. We think we’re so busy because there’s too much to do. It is true that there are huge pressures on our time and attention. If we just take email, in the time it has taken you to read this post, 100 million emails have been sent. Today, a quarter of a million people will start using email for the first time, adding their voice to the white noise bombarding us all. In the face of the ever-increasing information tsunami, it is impossible to even scratch the surface of all the things we could or should do on any given day. As the demands continue to increase, so our activity and urgency increases. However, to explain our busyness on the basis of how much stuff there is to do, is like deciding how much to eat by the size of the buffet table; it’s dumb. More importantly, it’s an abdication of our ability to make choices. If we start from the assumption that we can’t do it all, we should be making tough choices over what we’ll do, and how much. We have to ask ourselves why the only choice we’re making is to try and do as much as possible. In choosing relentless busyness, we are unchoosing a lot of the things that could help us to succeed and be happy: time to think, space to create and unpolluted moments of shared attention with loved ones. Busyness isn’t inevitable, it’s a bad choice.
Busy is a brand
The second possible explanation for our desire to shout about our busyness is that we think it’s cool. In an extensive analysis of holiday greetings cards, Ann Burnett was interested in how people summarized their year to friends and family. She found that people didn’t simply explain what they had done, they bragged about busyness, they even competed to be the busiest. This holds true in my own life too. I don’t know about you, but I find it really annoying when I’ve just told a friend about how busy I am (expecting praise, admiration or sympathy), when they out-busy me: they describe a week more crammed and crazy than mine! Somewhere deep down, I feel a little less vital and important.
But busy is far from cool. In fact, the frenetic, hop-scotching activity that makes up the majority of busyness could be seen as a form of avoidance or even procrastination. The work that will make the most difference or be most rewarding is also the activity that gets squeezed out by busyness: things that require sustained, singular focus. Our rush to do lots of things, means we often neglect the few big activities that are most important or rewarding. No organization is changed through achieving an empty inbox or a fully ticked to-do list. Email and other ‘busy activity’ helps us to feel like we’re being productive but does little to move our organizations or our lives forward. As T.E. Lawrence said ‘Mankind has been no gainer by its drudges’; great work and lives will not result from becoming busy drones, skittering between multiple tasks, but from deep immersion in the few.
So next time you find yourself explaining how busy you are; I hope you feel a little embarrassed. Busy is a bad choice and it isn’t cool.