Busy and Suffering

I am busy. I am so busy I barely have time to tell you how busy I am. I only slept 4 hours last night because I am so busy and have so much going on that it would literally be impossible for me to sleep 4.5 hours. If I did that, my day would fall apart. That half an hour is essential to stay productive. I am so busy, I do not have time to write this column, but I must—just one more thing to strike from my list of things that NEED to get done today.

Can we all please shut up about how busy we are? If you are annoyed by the above soliloquy, then welcome to my world where people are always telling me and others how busy they are. I am guilty as well—so no judgment. I just want us all to stop having this conversation.

However, why are we even having this conversation in the first place? Supposedly, 90% of workers are either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged”. In addition, procrastination is an almost universal dysfunction that limits our productivity and well-being. How is everyone so busy if everyone is procrastinating and not engaged at work? Maybe we are picking up the slack for this large portion of lazy unproductive workers. I think that it explains some of what is going on. However, I think there is something more insidious at play.

Being Busy Sends a Signal that You are Important

However, when people talk about how busy they are, I believe they are trying to send a signal to their managers that they are a necessary component of the organization. Since most managers are not able to directly observe subordinate performance, it is likely a better strategy to talk about how busy you are rather than to be objectively busy.  Busy workers who do not brag about how busy they are become dispensable because how is the manager supposed to know they are busy if they do not constantly hear about how busy they are?

Survivors Guilt

I think workers are having survivor’s guilt where they know they can face layoffs and in response increase their work but increase even more, their signaling about how hard they are working. When the economy is bad, I believe you will hear more and more about how busy people are. Certainly, work levels for those left behind increase during layoffs.

Work Ethic Guilt

Survivor’s guilt is likely at play but I think there is another type of guilt going on. Perhaps 90% of workers are disengaged because they do not find their jobs rewarding, challenging and fulfilling. We feel guilty about our disengagement and guilty about the fact we do not like our jobs. Therefore, we constantly talk about how busy we are to hide our deep dark secret—we are not really working that hard.

Disrespected and undervalued

When we tell someone else how busy we are also signaling that we want to be acknowledged for our hard work. We also use our busyness as interest on emotional debt. If someone asks me to do something, and I respond, “Sure no problem” this person does not really owe me much and I cannot really hold anything over them. However, if I respond, “I am super busy right now, but I will try and fit it in. No promises though”—that person is indebted to me. I have power over them. They know how busy I am, they know that I think they are important enough that I fit them into my busy schedule, and finally they owe me big in the future because I was so busy.

Some Final Words of Wisdom

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “It’s not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” Alice Munro also asked, “Why do we let ourselves be so busy and miss doing things we should have, or would have, liked to do?” We say we are busy with important things but I do not believe that is true. I side with the wisdom of Thoreau and Munro. If we are going to be busy, we better be busy with something truly important – something we should have or would have liked to do. When someone keeps telling you how busy they are, they are telling you they are going through a difficult time and they would like some validation. In response, tell them that you value them, their hard work, and that they are doing a great job. We are certainly not too busy to do that.


A version of this column was published in The Globe and Mail


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