Busyness – The Toxic Badge of Honor

When someone asks how you are, does your mind instantly bring to mind the word “busy”? If so, you’re not alone. Busyness is a constant feeling in so many of our lives. Indeed, it’s a vortex that we seem to get sucked down into more with every passing season. For a small number of us, this busyness is necessary to make ends meet, but far more of us like to believe that’s true when we really, deep down, like the feeling of being busy. Or, perhaps more accurately, we like the feeling of other people seeing us as busy. A 2016 study showed that “busy people who are perceived to be high status.” According to a Forbes article by Michelle Braden, references to “crazy schedules” have dramatically increased since the 1960s; the article even suggests that many of us suffer from “busyness addiction.” For those of us in the U.S., the perceived value of busyness is instilled in us throughout our lives. After all, the Puritan work ethic has been culturally ingrained since the first European settlers stole land from indigenous people groups and began to create what is now American culture. It is now, put simply, the air we breathe.

We wear this badge of busyness proudly, and yet, as Oliver Burkeman points out in his thought-provoking book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (which we’ll come back to in future articles), our real-life busyness has little to do with the joyful chaos of Richard Scarry’s children’s books set in Busytown – and, hopefully, with fewer car crashes. Like that fictional world full of anthropomorphic animals, it does seem as if everyone else is running around with lives as busy as our own, but in real life, we see a grim drivenness to just make it through this week, to keep calm, and carry on. (Chances are you know someone who regularly says “things will calm down next month” and has been saying it for years – or perhaps you’re the one who says it!) As Oliver Burkeman says, we develop complex tools to manage our time to relieve stress, and then fill the time we’ve saved with yet more stress-inducing tasks and projects. After all, we have the time; we might as well use it productively, right? But this leads to burnout, exhaustion, and a near-constant lack of fulfillment. So what can we do about it?

It takes conscious effort to go against the cultural grain and make healthier, more balanced choices. Sometimes these choices are small. I initially sat down to start writing this article at 9pm after getting up at 4:30am and leading a physically-demanding nine-hour team building workshop, before I realized the irony in my actions and decided to rest instead. So how might we make choices this week that can help us to shed our toxic badge of honor that is busyness?

This Week’s Tips:

Reflect on the role busyness plays in your life:

  1. Is it weather or climate? Short-term periods of intense activity are natural – you might treat this like a bad weather pattern that you just need to get through. But you might find it’s more systemic. Try to distinguish what your busyness climate is. Be straight with yourself – perhaps you’ll be surprised.
  2. Whose choice is it? How much of your busyness is imposed on you? You may find as you reflect on this that you are choosing more of your busyness than you imagined. If so, consider what choices might be open to you.
  3. What’s the payoff? We stay busy, despite the personal cost, because there’s a payoff of some kind – what is that payoff for you? What exactly are you getting in return? Is it life-affirming or life-draining?
  4. What are you avoiding by being busy? This can be a hard question to wrestle with, and may take time and practice. Busyness can mask anxiety, and can help you postpone or ignore difficult choices that need to be made. Come back to this one over the coming weeks and see what comes up for you.
  5. How can you support others in making healthy choices? Whether you are a manager or not, you work with other people. You might like to ‘put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others,’ but if you’re in a chronically-busy environment, you might find yourself slipping quickly. Support others in making healthy choices to not be busy, and ask them to support you too.

Try these out this week, and let us know how it goes in our Facebook group! We’d love to hear from you.

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Published by Ian Jackson

Ian Jackson is the founder of Building Bridges Leadership, which works with individuals, teams, and organizations to create authentic community in the workplace. He also writes children's fiction and teaches creative writing.

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