Is Busyness the Modern Day Status Symbol?

I once did a small social experiment. For about a week I noted down what people answered to a simple question: “How are you?” At work, with friends and with total strangers, the results were striking. About 8 in 10 had the same answer: busy.

“I’m so busy”; “It’s so busy at work”; “Busy with the kids”; “This project is keeping me busy”. And my favorite: “Oh you know – busy busy”. Busy – such a small word for how life is so overwhelming. But why do we use it? And why do I say we should stop using it?

Everyone’s busy

We live in a busy world. The average office worker receives about 121 emails a day. We spend 30-50% of our time in meetings, and about 60% of them are considered pointless. We have so much to do that only 1 in 3 say they’re able to effectively prioritise their tasks. We spend on average almost 6 hours per day on digital devices. As a result, 40% of knowledge workers feel exhausted. So if you tell someone you’re busy, what are you really revealing about yourself? Nothing much really.

Busyness discussion can turn into a competition

So why do we keep repeating how busy we are when the message is largely pointless? Because being busy has become the modern day status symbol. Being busy means that we’re doing many things. That we have a full life. That our time is precious. In short, it says ”I’m important”.

At best, complaining jointly about busyness can generate some modern camaraderie amongst adults: “We’re all so busy, but good on us for hanging in there!”

At worst, the busyness discussion can turn into a competition. I’ve witnessed senior professionals get into a verbal fight about who’s busier: one has four kids, the other has two in diapers; one got a big promotion, the other is managing a double role and a board seat; one is training for an Ironman, the other is writing a book. Either way, we love our busyness mantra because, ironically, it makes us feel special.

Our stories become the new reality

So why does complaining about busyness matter? Because the stories we tell ourselves become reality. There’s a concept in psychology called ‘narrative identity’ which says that we humans form our identity by creating an integrated story of our life. Importantly, we don’t simply take events and form a story – the opposite is also true: the stories we tell become who we are.

Life stories do not simply reflect personality. They are personality, or more accurately, they are important parts of personalitywrites Dan McAdams, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University. So if you keep telling yourself a story of busyness: that life’s hectic, time’s scarce, that work and family stress you out – guess what? It becomes real – you will experience your everyday as stressful and become even busier as a result.

When you say you’re busy, not only do you become more busy, you also become less able to do anything about it.

What’s worse, a key characteristic of the busyness story is that it’s something external that happens to us. Life, work, kids, traffic – they’re all forces beyond our control. This is a bad thing, because in his research Jonathan Adler, an assistant professor of psychology at Olin College of Engineering, has found that one theme in people’s stories have a particularly strong correlation with better wellbeing: agency, the feeling that we’re in control of our life. So when our stories involve us being helpless in the face of life’s busyness, it weakens our sense of agency and has an adverse effect on our mental health.

Do you follow the master narrative?

In addition to our personal self stories, some master narratives become embedded in our culture: get a degree, get a job, get married, have kids (the ‘get married’ and ‘have kids’ stories are increasingly becoming optional). Anyone who doesn’t follow a master narrative becomes a bit of an outlier. Being busy has become one of those master narratives. Whether we meet old friends or new business acquaintances it’s the story we’re expected to tell.  This is bad for our general mental health – by supporting the busyness narrative we’re strengthening a toxic helplessness in our society. We’re basically saying that “It’s okay to be a victim of your own life. We all are.”

Can we ban “busy”?

The good news though is that a self story is not tattooed to your skin or written in your DNA – it can be changed. And changing your story can change your life. In a longitudinal study on people in therapy Adler discovered that increased agency appeared in patients’ stories before their mental health improved. “It’s sort of like people put out a new version of themselves and lived their way into it,” Adler says. Tell a different story, and you’ll end up living it.

If we wouldn’t talk about being busy all the time, it’s possible we could live with less stress and more joy.

There’s another benefit to banning busy. Our stories become more interesting. When I stopped using ”busy” myself, I first struggled with what to replace it with. “Busy” is acceptable, “stressed” or “exhausted” not so much. And talking about work or family can come across as boasting unless we do it in the self-deprecating context of “it’s making me busy”.

Eventually though I found new stories. I would say that I was dividing my time between work and home, or that I was trying to create more space for family. Or I would happily state that life is good, and share a piece of good news or a short anecdote. The most interesting discussion though would invariably spring from: ”You know, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about…” Either way, my alternative stories became both more honest and interesting without one word: busy.

Let’s change our collective story

So let’s change our collective story. Let’s ban the word busy from our daily encounters. Let’s eliminate it from our homes, offices, and friendships where it isn’t adding any value. Let’s abandon the master narrative of helplessness in the face of life. Let’s instead try out different stories, and enrich our lives with more honest, engaging dialogue and human encounter. Maybe, just maybe, our lives will also change as a result.

Here’s to a non-busy rest of 2019!


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