Monday, September 19, 2016

The Myth of Being Busy

So I have been reading Drive by Daniel Pink over the past week (fair warning - the Amazon links are affiliate links if you buy it, it will add a few cents to my account). While the book focuses mostly on extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation and what really drives us, I stumbled across a passage talking about the way we work and it made me think about how we're really busy nowadays.

For years, when people asked, "How are you doing?" the stock answer "Fine" would come back as a high percentage response. Lately, though, people tend to answer "Busy" instead almost as often. Articles have examined whether or not this phenomenon is good or bad, with our collective thinking that being busy says something positive about a person.

But I started thinking, when you say you have been busy, it can definitely convey some extremely negative characteristics as well. So be careful who your audience is. They might just be busier than you. Or they might ascribe one of these less-than-flattering traits to your "busy" response.

Busy Means Inefficient

I knew a guy several years ago who was always "busy" and proud of it, but when pressed on all of the things that he was working on, I discovered he was just very inefficient. Tasks that would take his peers hours to complete would take him almost a full day, and a week's worth of work might occupy his time for close to two.

This all created a tremendous sense of being busy to him, but it really meant his supervisor had assigned him equal work to his peers, and he was just unable to complete it in an appropriate window of time.

Busy Means Disorganized

Running hand in hand with inefficiency, disorganization also causes someone to feel busy. Not having a system to keep track of the things that you need to do can make every little task seem overwhelming. 

You can't keep work items in context with your total to do list or set priorities appropriately when you don't have them organized.

Disorganization also means that you don't know what to do with new requests, which can lead to the next perception.

Busy Means Overcommitted

You have an inability to say "no" to new requests, even though your plate is entirely full. That may be what you are conveying when you say you are busy. If you had great control and understanding of projects you have already pledged to complete and what level of effort you would spend on a new project, you could easily keep yourself from getting overcommitted.

Want to avoid this perception? Make sure you know how to say "no" when faced with a task that will overcommit your time. Then use that skill to avoid getting too busy.

Busy Means Lazy

You might be surprised, but your busyness could be perceived as laziness. If the person you are talking to feels like she is busier than you are, then your claim to be "busy" may give her the impression that you are lazy. Obviously, in her mind, if you are "busy" but you aren't as busy as she is, then you must be a slacker, complaining about your light workload.

Busy Means You Lie

Lack of communication could have your busy state perceived as a lie by others, meant to make yourself look more important. If you claim to be busy, but nobody ever sees what you are actually working on or completing, others may think you are lying about how much work you do.

In a world where some value being busy as a badge of honor and importance, claiming to be busy without any tangible proof looks like bragging, when you may or may not even have anything to brag about. 


If you typically answer "How are you?" with "Busy," perhaps you should rethink that stock answer. If you really are not that busy, don't act like you are. If you are busy, though, perhaps you could think about the root cause of why you let yourself get so swamped.

Then again, you could always think about how you actually are doing and answer appropriately. Communicate instead of reacting automatically to others, and you might manage to build a layer of trust between you and your coworkers.