Being 'busy' is a myth: a challenge to remove the word from conversations
Being “busy” is a total myth. At least the way I hear people using it. It drives me nuts when I ask someone how they’re doing or what they’ve been up to, and their response is: “I’ve been so busy”. That doesn’t actually answer the question, because being busy is not a feeling and it doesn’t give me any meaningful information with which to continue the conversation. I want to know how you’re doing or what has been filling your time; neither of those questions is answered by saying “busy”.
Call me pedantic but by definition “busy” simply means having a great deal to do. Well, isn’t that the case for any human being? It’s totally subjective. By that definition, my 4-year-old daughter could describe herself as being busy; she has pages that need painting, dolls who need tending, and snacks that need eating. Each day that passes is undoubtedly full of activity; she has a “great deal to do”. Same thing applies to my 78-year-old grandmother; she has episodes that need watching, pets that need petting and friends that need calling. Her day is also totally full; she is “busy”.
So, if being busy is subjective, why does it bother me that people (mis)use it so often? I have two reasons…
The first is because being “busy” has become a colloquial status symbol, a badge of honour. It has become synonymous with being important. The problem with this use of the word is that it places a value judgement on how time is spent. Sure, some tasks might be more profit-generating than others, but aren’t there other ways to spend time that are equally as important as making money, such as learning, creating, building relationships, homemaking or simply being in nature? For me the answer is definitely yes. I believe that how we spend our time is a reflection of our values, so we all fill our days with a “great deal to do” that we have deemed a personal priority. No one else can tell me what is worth spending time on without imposing their judgement. Just because one person chooses to spend their day puttering in the garage or hiking in nature doesn’t make them any less “busy” (i.e., important) than the person who chooses to spend their time pumping out sales calls and emails from their desk. Time is time. It goes by at the same speed for all of us and we fill it with the number of tasks and activities of our choosing. In this way we can all say that we are “busy”, but no one is more important than the other.
My second agitation behind the misuse of the term “busy” is that it gets used when there are more things on your to-do list than you have the skills or resources to achieve in the necessary timelines or because the things on your to-do list are not things you want to spend your time doing. In other words, you’re not busy you’re actually overwhelmed or over-committed. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the book Flow, has a fantastic framework that shows how we experience panic and anxiety to the extent that the challenges we are facing require more skills and confidence than we possess:
Building from his model, I think that when people say they’re busy to describe the feelings of overwhelm it can also be because they don’t have the resources they need (horizontal axis), or they don’t believe they have a choice or control over the tasks on their agenda (vertical axis). In any case, using “busy” to describe your feelings is not generally helpful in alleviating them; identifying which axis needs attention is much more likely to help you access support. If the tasks on your to-do list that are causing stress require more skill or resources than you have, you can seek training, ask for help, enlist a mentor, or negotiate due dates. If your to-do list is filled with tasks that feel more like obligations than opportunities, you can seek substitutes (i.e., subcontractors) to fill in for you, arrange a trade, delegate, resign, and try saying ‘no’ more often.
About 3 years ago I resolved to remove the word “busy” from my vocabulary for the above mentioned reasons and it has created an internal revolution! It has caused me to be more in touch with my feelings as it relates to my to-do list and take quicker action to ask for help when I need it. Instead of struggling in a state of overwhelm, I take pause to identify what skills or resources I need to get out of panic mode. It has also helped me get clearer about my values and what I deem as being worth my time. Doing so has given me permission to make more time in my life for things that align with my values, like exercise, connecting with family and friends, self-care, hobbies and time in nature. It has also helped me clarify what to say no to in the first place.
In the spirit of wanting more heartfelt conversations in the world, I have a challenge for you…consider removing the word “busy” from your vernacular too. Instead, when someone asks you how you’re doing, respond with feeling descriptions; some version of mad, sad, glad, scared, stressed, overwhelmed, etc. Alternatively, if someone asks what you’ve been up to respond with details about the activities that have been filling your time. I can pretty much guarantee it will lead to more interesting and meaningful conversations.