You might say you're slammed, swamped, up to my eyes or — if you’re Australian — flat out like a lizard drinking. But chances are, when people ask you how you’re doing, your response is likely a variation of ‘I’m busy’.
To say it out loud, or to signal it by, say, checking your phone or laptop in meetings or multitasking without paying full attention to anything, is so commonplace that it feels harmless. But is it?
Your sense of overload isn’t unique
Rattling off the reasons we're busy can feel like a badge of honour. But the truth is, people aren't impressed. And worse, the impression they’re really getting about you can sabotage your career and relationships, experts say.
That’s in part because your sense of overload isn’t unique. In a survey of 9,700 fulltime workers across eight countries in late 2014 and early 2015, about half of managers said their hours had increased sharply over the past five years. One in three workers said it was becoming harder to achieve a work-life balance. The study by professional services firm EY cited job insecurity, working across different time zones and being constantly connected digitally as reasons for rising workloads.
You're not as busy as you think
It’s not that we got here on our own, or just because we’re now laden with devices and apps and nonstop connectivity.
“I’ve worked in a lot of environments where busy was glorified,” says human resources strategist and consultant Ed Baldwin, who has worked in the field for 25 years. “Employees see that the leadership is very busy and if they’re aspiring to these roles they want to look busy."
It's a common misconception that appearing to be busy is a signal that you're valuable
It might have seemed like a smart move. After all, we're told to dress for the job we want and conduct ourselves the way that people in the jobs we want conduct themselves. But being busy is an exception to that time-tested way of thinking. Rather than making a positive impression, you’re more likely to be seen as inefficient and rude, Baldwin says.
It's a common misconception that appearing to be busy — even if you’re not — is a signal that you're valuable, whether it’s to your boss, your colleagues, your family or your friends. And there might have been a time when that was true — until it became an unthinking, default response.
But what people really hear is something vastly different. It’s as if you are asking to be judged on how busy you seem, not how productive you really are, explains Ed Baldwin, a Denver, Colorado-based human resources strategist and consultant. The real message you’re sending, he adds, is "I'm not very good at prioritising my time” and, at the moment, you’re not a priority at all.
Busyness and lack of leisure time have become a status symbol
Busyness and lack of leisure time have become a status symbol, says Silvia Bellezza, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School in New York City, and co-author of the research paper Conspicuous Consumption of Time.
In the past, until around the 1960s, says Bellezza, a leisurely lifestyle was seen as an indicator of wealth and success, but today the opposite is true. In a structured job market — where headhunters chase the best candidates — busy people are seen as possessing skills and characteristics that are in demand.
In Italy, in June… if you say that you’re working all summer people will think that you are a loser
“We are communicating to the world that our human capital is really scarce,” she says.
Social media is studded with humblebrags from celebrities about how they are constantly on tour and have no time to have a life. While wearing a diamond ring or an expensive watch are traditional ways of displaying wealth, a new and more nuanced way to signal status has been to showcase your busyness, Bellezza says, according to studies she has conducted.
Of course, this varies around the world but, it is particularly prevalent in the US.
“Work is central to American identity,” she says. “But in Europe there are other facets of people’s life that matter so much. For instance, in Italy, in June, everybody is talking about what they’ll do in the summer. If you say that you’re working all summer people will think that you are a loser, you don’t have the money to go [away], and also that you’re not an interesting person.”
They are also reassuring themselves, according to new research by J Christine Kim, assistant professor of marketing at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology in Kowloon, Hong Kong. “When people say they are busy it makes them feel that their life is important and their presence matters to the people around them,” Kim says.
Part of it is victimhood and stoicism. We want that to be heard
That masks something most of us don't really want to think about, let alone admit.
“Part of it is victimhood and stoicism. We want that to be heard," says business psychologist Tony Crabbe, a Europe-based consultant for firms such as Microsoft, Disney and HSBC and author of the book Busy. "And somewhere deeper is a recognition that actually we’re letting ourselves down or letting our families down by this endless busyness, that it’s not productive, it’s not helpful.”
A matter of interpretation
So if ‘busy’ is such a dirty word, but you really are run off your feet. What can you say instead?
Laura Simms, a Detroit, Michigan-based risk and safety specialist has some sage advice. “I’m really irritated when I hear the ‘b’ word," she says. And, she adds, it's meaningless.
“I would much rather someone say ‘I’m entering a $100,000 order right now and I’ll be pleased to get back to you at 4pm’ [instead]. ‘Busy’ dismisses the other person and does not give them an opportunity to get on your priority list.”
Telling someone at length about how busy you are will not enhance your career
In reality, though, there are many tasks we've got to complete in a work day, often with bosses watching. So, it’s a matter of clear communication and prioritising. But what language can you use to make it clear that you can’t be all things to all people at once?
Simms suggests, “I would say, ‘Would you rather I finish this first or help you with that?'"
You're forcing the question of priority on the person asking you to add to your workload. In most cases, they'll say to finish your work and then stop by to chat about a fresh task.
And next time someone asks you how things are going, pause before you fall back on the busy answer. Instead, use it as an opportunity to say something interesting, suggests Crabbe.
“Be creative, say something that you’re engaged with or excited about; something you’re working on, something that you’ve done at the weekend," he says. "One
thing is certain; telling someone at length about how busy you are will not enhance your career or create a happy moment for either of you.”
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