Why “I’m busy” is not a badge of honor
We all know the type: the friend or coworker who simply can’t wait for the slightest prompt to say “Ugh, I’m so incredibly, spectacularly, impressively, extraordinarily, unprecedentedly busy!”
In The New York Times a few years back, Tim Kreider dismissed this as “pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.” Personally, I think it’s more of a boast-complaint hybrid—ingredients that are groan-inducing enough in isolation, but become especially galling in combination.
For one thing, it’s a misplaced boast.
“We do feel that busy equals productive,” says Kory Kogon, author of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. This, she says, is faulty math. Instead, she urges business leaders to focus on staying productive, prioritizing their daily to-do list, and finding a few things to finish each day that will move the business forward.
At Central Desktop, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking (and writing) about productivity. The tips never include “Push yourself to the brink” or “Tackle as many tasks as possible, preferably simultaneously.” Instead, experts typically advise to find a healthy work-life balance, to really focus on high-priority projects rather than multitask, to avoid unnecessary meeting-clutter on your calendar, and to build in time to meditate and be idle.
Busyness, on the other hand, will disrupt your productivity.
“Researchers call busyness ‘cognitive overload.’ The state of cognitive overload makes us worse at everything,” says Christine Carter, author of Raising Happiness. “It hinders our ability to organize ourselves, to plan, to think clearly, to be creative, to innovate. It makes us irritable. It impairs our verbal fluency, and our ability to remember social information. And, it hinders our ability to control our emotions.”
Carter’s personal story is mirrored by many others: people who are seemingly reaching the summit of the career mountaintop, only to realize the heavy toll that their busyness is taking. In Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, she relays her own story of how the busy-busy-busy modern mindset caused disruption in her personal life.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Kreider wrote.
His column sparked a lively discussion about the ways we spend our days. Critics rightly pointed out that not everyone had the luxury to “choose time over money” while still making enough money to pay the bills.
That was back in 2012—and, in many ways, it feels like not much has changed. “Do more with less” is still a phrase in circulation. Our social media feeds are still filled with friends brag-plaining about their busy, busy lives.
In other ways, a lot has changed. New productivity tools and smarter collaborative practices are making it easier for people and teams to work on their own terms. There’s been a real awakening to ideas that would have been anathema to old-fashioned corporate policies (employee-driven flexibility, irregular hours, looser hierarchies, etc.).
To be clear: removing yourself from the “I’m so busy” rat race doesn’t mean waging a war against work. It doesn’t mean cutting corners with your preschool fundraiser or abandoning the rock opera you work on in the garage after midnight. It doesn’t even necessarily mean finding that elusive balance. Even if you’re consciously setting family and free time and personal health aside in order to focus on your entrepreneurial endeavors, you should be aspiring to an answer greater than “I’m so busy” when someone asks about your day.