Not now, I’m Busy

I almost didn’t get this post written. I’ve been so busy you see.

What with commuting, working four days a week, household chores and kids – writing blog posts frequently slips to the bottom of a long to do list.

So I was fascinated when I spotted this article from the BBC about how we all feel so busy – but we’re actually not. You mean the crazy is all in my imagination? Or am I just unproductively buzzing around? Whichever it is, it comes with a shock realization: If I’m not really busy then what am I doing?

The Glorification of Busy

The busyness epidemic was brought to my attention a few years ago. I was part of a women’s leadership development course. The course facilitator was a very smart person who offered tips for dealing with many communication issues. One that particularly frustrated her was finding how to respond to people who love to talk about just how hectic their life is. We’ve all been there to some extent or another.  A friend or colleague who loves to glorify their rushing around and busyness – it makes them sound and feel so important. It can even lead to a conversational arms race of busy talk. I’m busier (more important) than you! The course leader’s recommended response to this type of conversationalist was simply this:

“yes, we are blessed with full lives, aren’t we?”

A very clever response that will hopefully get the conversation onto something more productive. We just don’t have time for all this busy talk in our busy lives.

So if you want to shut down a conversation about how busy your friend or colleague is that’s how to do it. On the other hand, I was recently made aware that conversing about busyness can be a great conversation starter.

I was part of a professional mentoring group, and we were addressing the very real pains of ‘networking’. Very few people like or enjoy it, but it’s touted as a great way to meet useful people and build relationships. Even if not at a formal networking event, apparently it’s important to make sure you strike up conversations with colleagues you don’t see often. Maybe the quick elevator conversation with someone you only vaguely know from another department. We all know how painful they can be. Well, I have the answer. The perfect conversation starter that will give your acquaintance the ideal opportunity to talk about themselves in whatever context they like. Here it is. It works. It’s scary how well it works. Try it out and get back to me.

“What’s keeping you busy these days?”

There it is – a golden opportunity to talk about whatever aspect of life that they want to, along with the unspoken acknowledgement that you know they are very important as they are very busy. It’s an all-around feel good.

So we all do it. We talk about how ‘full’ our lives are. We make others feel good by recognizing how full their lives are and giving them a chance to talk about it. What’s going on here? How did busy become a measure of a person’s importance and value? How did we all get so busy?

If Not Busy, Then What?

So are we truly busy? I know for a fact that my commute, picking up kids, cooking food and general chores do indeed fill my time and then some.  My mark of busyness is knowing I can’t complete everything I feel I need to that’s on my to-do list. But whose fault is that? Whose to-do list is it? Well, it’s mine. And therein lies the rub.

The general wisdom around our busy lives is that unlike our parent’s generation, we can be, and are expected to be always on. Whether that’s work email, or accepting and responding to friend’s Facebook messages, we are expected to respond, produce and be available at all times. We also have the ability to get chores done at any point. Why not do your grocery shopping online while at the gym? There are always more things we can do, more emails to respond to, more things to read and more friends to contact.

This beautifully written opinion piece from the New York Times really puts into context what this constant activity all about. I quote because I simply cannot write it better myself

“…It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work…….”

and

“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.”

So we need to feel busy to feel worthwhile. We need to tell others how busy we are to feel important. We’re probably not as busy as we think, but feeling like we have an endless to do list really just results in anxiety and feeling rushed. Tasks don’t get completed properly and we make bad time management decisions. Then we feel busier. It’s a vicious circle.

What can we do about it?

The Glorification of Leisure

The internet is full of suggestions for how to handle our busy lives and balance all of our commitments. A simple search will reveal all sorts of suggestions ranging from prioritizing tasks to meditation. I’d like to offer up my own take on a solution, which I think you’ll probably see is very biased towards Early Retirement. We’ve written recently about some of the reasons we want to escape the rat race, and about how my time will be as full as I want it to be. Here Mrs. PIE recommends “The Glorification of Leisure.”

Now I haven’t got this all down yet by any means, and I’m not the poster child for following my own advice, but here it is anyway. I believe that we can re-glorify leisure simply by saying no to the madness. This means protecting our time from the expectations of others. It might go something like this:

No, I won’t do anything work related outside of work hours.

No, I won’t take on extra tasks or social events that I really don’t want to do.

I will fill my to-do list with things I’m enthusiastic about and I won’t worry if they don’t get finished immediately.

I will learn to cope with the sad looks from other parents when I tell then no, my kids are not doing soccer, baseball, violin or whatever else.

I’ll happily report to others that I spent the morning reading a book and drinking coffee or playing a game with the kids and I WASN’T BUSY!

Have you fallen into the busyness trap? How do you Glorify Leisure?

52 comments

  1. I’m usually more on the bored side than the busy side, so if someone offers some activity or experience that sounds intriguing, I generally won’t turn it down unless it has a prohibitive price tag attached to it.

    I can say that starting a blog has done wonders for alleviating boredom!

    1. Yes, the blogging community and running a blog are certainly very good ways to filll time. It’s amazed me how much time in fact. Like anything, i have to balance it against other demands on my time.
      I nearly wrote about boredom in this post, especially as it relates to kids. (Didn’t have time though😉) many people are scared of boredom, especially in their kids. That’s fair enough as my mum used to say ‘the devil makes work for idle hands’ which is probably true depending on who you are. There’s nothing wrong in my mind with experiencing a little boredom. That’s where unexpected ideas come from. Forcing yourself to find something interesting to do is a great way to avoid wasting time on things that don’t really need your attention

  2. I definitely have the busy problem. I work as a salaried employee, measured and expected to deliver certain items within a given time period, but not measured or looked at for hours a week. Usually I have more items to work on then hours in the day. I work 50-60 hrs a week. However every so often, between projects, I hit a time sequence where there simply is not enough to do at work to fill 40 hours. Rather then feel like I should relax and it will even out I psychologically end up feeling like I’m not working to expectations. I feel guilty even though Im normally paid for 40 hours a week and probably entitled to half a year of comp time at this point. It takes a constant reminder from my wife and time spent with the family to remind myself to lighten up for these brief periods.

    1. You’ve hit on an important point there that relates both to paid work and personal time. The drive to feel productive is very real, and in my mind, sometimes pretty silly! As you point out, you’re entitled to take a little break when work is slower but the guilt factor is often there.
      It happens to me too, I don’t work Fridays, and make that my chore day. I keep a things to do list and fill the day from beginning to end. Many times I feel very unproductive though. I’ve really got to work on my definition of productive!

  3. Thank you for this post. We prioritize and say no whenever the answer isn’t an enthusiastic Yes!
    I wish others would do the same instead of overcommitting, then complaining or flaking at the last moment. I don’t want to be someone’s plan B or C. I want to be their plan A or nothing, so this is how I treat others.
    I also schedule in leisure time just as I would a work meeting or other obligation. Hikes, family dinners, and time with friends is much more important than most other busy-ness, so it gets a well-deserved spot on the calendar.
    These things do move in cycles, so hopefully the tide is turning on this one and busy-ness for busy-ness’s sake will go out of fashion soon.

    1. Oh – I love that “I want to be their plan A or nothing” comment! I cycle in and out of “too busy” too. I hate how I feel when I overextend (like the last few months). I knew it wasn’t forever, but it has felt like it. I was better when my kids were littler – I made sure all of our schedules were do-able. Now that they are older, I feel like I have more time and often need to fill it or I feel unproductive. Definitely something I need to lighten up on!

      1. Yes, that’s a great comment isn’t it? It’s a reminder for me to treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves.
        The voice in the back of the head that warns us we are not being productive really does need to be silenced sometimes. That’s the one that won’t let me sit down and read a book!

    2. I love that! It’s all about priorities, and we get to choose them. I really do hope theses a backlash against the busy cycle as a means of showing importance. There’s a long way to go in corporate America though, with many feeling they can’t even take vacation or sick time.
      Let us lead by example!

  4. Haha, yes Mr PIE!

    I read that BBC article too. That article, and yours, are so true! We all have the same 24 hours in the day – so it’s up to us to choose what to do with it 🙂

    Some of family seem to love being busy (and everything else you talk about in your piece), yet don’t enjoy it. Cue hand-slap-on-forehead.

    It’s impossible to do *nothing*. Watching TV isn’t productive, but it’s doing something. Sitting on the beach isn’t nothing – it’s relaxation time right?

    We are trying to “maximise” our time more and more. Time is precious. So either it better be very productive, very relaxing or along those lines. Wasted time (doing things that aren’t useful, enjoyable or necessary), then what’s the point 🙂

    I definitely don’t complain about being busy, that’s for sure.

    Tristan

    1. Yup, it’s about choosing what the important things are and fitting everything else in around that. If the less important things don’t fit, then so be it!
      For me, continuing to work just doesn’t fit with everything else. Once I’ve used 10 hours of my day commuting, working and picking up kids the ability to fit in important stuff (or even less important stuff) is pretty much gone

  5. I might be more on the other side due to major procrastination, even sometimes of things I mostly enjoy. This, of course, leads to a vicious cycle, as the more procrastination and goofing off, the more anxious and unwilling I am to follow through.

    No matter where we individually fall on the spectrum, it’s definitely important to check ourselves and make sure were spending our time in ways that will truly make us happy. ☺

    1. Yes, all about choosing the things that are important to us, and letting the rest go.
      I can understand the procrastination thing, although I KNOW for me it’s a very true indicator of whether or not I truly want to do something. Even things I believe I enjoy slip down this list sometimes and that’s when I ask myself if I really do enjoy them or not. That provides some surprises I can tell you!

      1. Surprises? Do tell!

        For me, there are sometimes parts of activities – say, blogging – where I tend to procrastinate the most. Getting pretty pictures, for instance, or just being shy to pull the publishing trigger for fear of not being polished or good enough. In some ways, it’s like exercise – I love how I feel afterwards, but some parts are uncomfortable, so I put them off for tomorrow.

        1. I can certainly identify with the procrastination due to fear of ‘failure’ and when I say failure I mean not being good enough. I do that with cakes sometimes, but at least there’s a deadline for those that I have to meet!

  6. Busyness IS an epidemic! I feel as though there is always one more thing on my to-do list, and if I neglect that, then I’m not being as productive as a possibly could be. You and the NYT make an excellent point: much of this is self-inflicted. As far as glorifying leisure goes, I’m working on getting back to reading (non work-related) books on a regular basis, and in the fall, I make time every Saturday to watch some college football, although I still usually end up checking emails or planning for the week ahead during said football, so I suppose it’s not entirely leisure. Practice makes perfect, though 🙂

    1. Yes, very true. It’s all about practice!
      I’ve fallen into the trap of feeling I should be doing two things at once. I noticed recently that I sat down to watch a favorite TV show with my iPad in hand- because I was going to be checking emails or something else ‘important’. Needless to say, I didn’t enjoy the show and the emails didn’t get the attention they deserved.
      That’s a productive fail if ever there was one!

  7. Guilty! I need to be busy on things I like. I get bored and feel bad when not being productive. Luckily, going for a bike ride or a swim with the kids qualifies as busy…!

    Now that I think of it: I do not complain that much about being busy. On the other hand, I do tell to people I am busy.

    And thx for the conversation starter!

    1. Thanks for the comment!
      It’s funny show we feel we have to tell others we’re busy. When people ask me what I did over the weekend I feel I have to have a fantastic list of awesome stuff. Sharing the ‘mundane’ just doesn’t feel like worthy conversation. I need to work on that.,

  8. Mrs Pie, I almost said to myself “I’m too busy” to read your post today, so glad I didn’t. We all have choices on how we fill our days, let’s make sure we prioritize on what really matters to US. To me, reading your blog today was more important than the “always important” stuff that, in really, isn’t that important. Today, that stuff waited, while I prioritized you! I think I’ll make more of “that stuff” continue to wait. I suspect a lot of it will simply “go away”, anyway! Thanks for the “morning PIE” today, nutrition for my soul.

    1. Hey thanks Fritz, that made me smile.
      It’s a also another reminder to me to treat others as I want to be treated. It’s great when people make time for me, and I need to make sure I make time for people too. All about priorities 😊

  9. What a great read, Mrs. PIE! (And, incidentally, I understand Happy Birthday wishes are due your way!)

    There’s probably also a “value signaling” argument for the Busyness Epidemic: If someone asks what you’re up to, and you haven’t got a good (i.e., “busy”) answer, you can imply you’re not worth others’ needs and thereby limit future opportunities for collaboration or socializing. By proclaiming you’re busy, you just might pique the other party’s interest in you. Now, that argument’s gotten weaker over time as more people have adopted the strategy of signaling value this way. But it’s hard to find a good argument for many in the alternative strategy other than in its contrariness. (Plus, we simple humans are prone to believing our own fictions; if we signal to others that we’re valuable, then maybe we really are!)

    There’s an awesome dialogue exchange in Office Space that goes something like this: “If I had a million dollars, I wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t do anything. I’d do absolutely nothing.” Response: “Ah, hell, Peter. You don’t need a million dollars to do that. My uncle don’t do jack, and he’s dead broke.”

    Nobody wants to seem (or feel) like the broke uncle. And so, even if we’re not really that busy, it sure looks like a valuable signaling strategy to appear that way – so we just might have an opportunity to really be engaged in the future!

    Great stuff as always, and thank you for the fun read.

    1. Thanks for the birthday wishes!
      That’s an interesting way to look at the issue. Do we perceive most value in people who appear busy and thus interesting? Do we try to emulate that behavior to appear worthy also? Is what you have just described a version of ‘if you want something done, give it to a busy person to get it done?’
      When it comes down to it, it’s about boundaries and doing what makes us most happy. If I’m busy on my own terms with things I truly want to do, then I’ll happily be a busy person!

  10. Great read, as always. It’s amazing how this has changed over time. This reminds me of how in the old days, people preferred to be pale because only poor workers would get tanned. Now, being tanned is a sign of success and health. Likewise, in this day and age, being busy gives us the aura of importance. When people ask me today “How was your weekend?” I will respond as always: “Boring and boring is beautiful!” I can always sense that most married folks with kids will understand, while singles and young couples give me that look; they don’t know if they should feel sorry for me or if I was joking.

    1. Yes indeed, very true about people who were tanned. Also true that having leisure time belonged to the leisured classes, i.e. Those with money. These days a sign of importance and wealth is being too busy to have leisure time. I wonder what our forbearers would make of today’s hectic lifestyle?
      And very true about singles and young couples often not understanding the need for boring!

  11. Great post! I feel very busy these days, but try not to use it as an excuse or basis for complaint if I can help it. We really should take more time for ourselves. There are so many studies/articles about how Americans don’t use their vacation time, but that it can make a huge difference in well being and job performance. There is just so much I want to do to get ahead, but only so many hours in a day. The closest thing I’ve had to “me time” lately is watching the Walking Dead premiere (while doing nothing else – like running money making apps or crocheting). That experience was not very relaxing.

    1. Thank for your comment. I don’t watch the walking dead but I can understand how it wouldn’t be very relaxing!
      Luckily I have a more European attitude towards vacation, so that’s not a problem for me. It’s interesting that you mentioned wanting to get ahead. In today’s always on world it’s hard to take a break because at the same time someone else will be still working and pushing. There’s something to be said for a simpler time when work finished when the office closed

  12. I love leisure, more than some others. Sometimes I beat myself up over it but then other times I remember not to compare myself to Betty who works a full-time job, volunteers, and does X, Y, Z crammed into a 24 hour day. Leisure makes me happy and that’s okay. I’ve learned keeping busy just to keep busy stresses me out more than anything.

    1. Good for you! I often wonder how or why people manage to keep going for so long in one day. I know I need to sleep, that limits my output for the day! I’m als a firm believer that we make time for the things we want to, and the things at the bottom of the to do list should probably just stay there!

  13. Really thoughtful post. I like your approach and your takeaways. I think that drawing a clear line where work ends and leisure begins can be huge. It’s also important, as you pointed out, to recognize that everything on our to do list is there because we put it there. These simple mindset shifts are really useful in eliminating that sort of creeping anxiety feeling that is in the back of the mind of the perpetually busy person.

  14. Thanks Matt,
    I Like that description “creeping anxiety”. It’s very real and sits in the back of my mind asking me if I’m being productive and usually telling me I’m not being productive!
    I’ve started to ask myself whether the things on my to do list are necessary, and if there are some changes I could make to make life simpler.

  15. I’ve got a sneaky suspicion that the ‘I’m so busy’ shtick is just one more way that we try to “keep up” or “one up” someone else. If you play that game then you can shove it – ain’t nobody got time for that.

    1. You could be right, it’s probably a pretty big factor in some one-upping. It goes along with the folks who are always 5-10 mins or so late to meetings, because they are so busy. Showing up on time would send the wrong message. Yup, ain’t nobody got time for that!

  16. Great post!
    I’ve definitely fallen into the busy/hustle mindset trap. For a while I was all about (no days off) and (never not working). But I realized it’s about balance. I’m no longer trying to glorify that lifestyle now.
    I really do appreciate my leisure time. Just being able to do things like listen to music, reading books, or hanging out with friends it super important for me.
    I’ve never really thought about glorifying leisure though. It is important to set aside free time for yourself and learn to let go. I like this way of thinking 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks Graham! Appreciating your leisure time and making sure you get it is a big deal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if no one even thought to use the word lazy to describe someone who is enjoying their personal time off. Ah, one day!

  17. Sometimes the busyness trap is so strong that I have to consciously spend a couple of days to not do anything. For example, I took around 5 days off from my blog (no checking stats, anything) because I needed the recharge and the rest to keep me going forward.

    I don’t know if I made the right decision for my blog but I certainly think I made the right decision for my mind to be at peace. This is a great post that is hard to understand at first but once understood, it can lead to a happier life!

    1. That’s great that you recognized the need for a break and actually took one. The first part is hard enough but actually committing to a break is pretty impressive!
      I think a lot of people would be happier if they just slowed down a bit!

  18. I tell you what, I’ve been so buys lately I hardly found time to make it over to read this great post! Thanks Mrs. Pie.

    I’m all about glorifying leisure and I do my best work on the weekends J. That’s my time to get caught up on household things, but most importantly is playing around with the kiddo, going for a bike ride and playing at the park. It keeps me busy, but that’s leisure for me and the most enjoyable part of the weekend.

    Also, I like the suggestion for small talk by saying “what keeps you busy these days”. I’ll have to start using that! Thanks.

    1. Let me know how it goes, I found it a hilariously and disturbingly good conversation starter!
      Sounds like you have your weekend leisure all figured out. I think pottering around at the weekend is most enjoyable when you haven’t got much else on your mind that you need to do. Letting the to do list sit in the back of my head is a guaranteed way to spoil weekend pottering, and something I try to avoid

  19. I think in the office especially, people do see being busy as “look at me I’m so important”. I jsut don’t translate it the same way. Like a previous commenter, if we have a nice boring weekend just playing in the yard, around the neighborhood, etc… it is pretty awesome! I try to minimize my busy-ness and keep focused on things that matter.

    Time is like money and you can fritter it away on mindless non-worthwhile stuff and always be stressed about where it’s going and wonder why you don’t have enough, or you can spend it (time) mindfully and intentionally and start getting more and more of it back to put towards what you want.

    1. Oh I really like that! We’ve all heard the time is money theory, but to hear it described like that is perfect. Mindful spending of your cash and mindful spending of your time. Love it!

  20. At work, it’s actually become the default answer to “how are you doing?”, “Oh you know, super busy”. I really don’t like this kind of answer because it 1. does not answer the question and 2. it feels like they are so busy they actually have no time to talk. What the hell?
    Since our daughter was born, we’ve actually been very busy but we agreed 2 weeks ago to do nothing on friday nights and saturdays, but only spend time on ourselves: watch a movie, get a pizza, go for a walk,… I’ve come to really enjoy these moments when we somehow manage to deal with our busyness and put it aside for a minute, an hour or more.
    How ironic, we’re the folks talking about FIRE and we’re all workaholics! 😀

    1. I know, tell me about it! That kind of answer doesn’t even allow for follow up conversation. Yup. Too busy to talk.
      That’s a great idea, keeping Friday and Saturday free. I remember the early days with little ones, and to be honest each day rolled into the next with little to differentiate one from the next. You’ve got some down time to look forward to each week (well, as ‘down’ as it can get with a small one in the house!)

  21. I love the line: “yes, we are blessed with full lives, aren’t we?”
    I’m tempted to use it on my wife the next time she tells me how busy she is……but something tells me that won’t go over well. 🙂

    1. Hi Dennis, thanks for stopping by!
      I take no responsibility for the outcome using that line with a spouse! You could be in the right track thinking it wouldn’t work out too well!

  22. I enjoyed reading this post so much that I just emailed it to a bunch of people! 🙂

    As humans, I believe that we will always find a way to be busy. When I was working full-time I used to daydream about what it would be like if I didn’t have to work. I wrongfully believed that I would have time to do whatever I want, whenever I wanted. But life tends to bend and twist in unexpected ways and instead of having extra time, I found myself busy with the demands of taking care of family in their time of need. I also believe that being busy gives us a purpose in life.

    1. Good to see you back, and thanks so much for sharing with your friends!
      Yes, I’ll always find ways to be busy. Hopefully the good kind of busy that’s on my terms. Not the enforced kind of busy that come from spending too much time doing things I don’t want to to (commuting) and more time doing what I want (volunteering, baking etc etc….).
      Hope all is well with your family, and so good you were available to help out. Funny how things work out!

  23. We are in the busy trap, and seriously trying to get out of it! And yes, think that because you want to do too many things, leisure if glorified a bit. However, don’t think that all that bad either. Give you a reason to relax and set a goal to actually achieve this.

    1. It’s easy to get into. And not all bad for sure. However, it’s worth assessing what we’re spending our time on (much like assessing what we’re spending our money on), and getting rid of the useless and unnecessary stuff

  24. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I’ve probably done it myself to some extent. The difference is being self aware enough that you can pull out of it. Sadly that’s not the case for everyone that falls into that category of busy

  25. I remember that dizzy feeling for 13 years while I was working. It was a badge of honor to feel busy all the time.

    But now, I often find myself twiddling my thumbs by 10 or 11 AM because I’m always up by 6 AM writing and finishing up some stuff online.

    Are used busyness as an excuse yesterday for the reason why I totally forgot and 8:30 AM doubles hit with three other fellows. I felt so bad. I cannot conceive why I did not remember this tennis match that I was so looking forward to playing. Was it because my calendar reminder didn’t go off? Or I was just too busy because my father is visiting in my mind was wandering? I don’t know.

    Maybe I’m just getting old. Or maybe my mind is just too pulled in so many different directions to do my online activity.

    At least now I created daily calendar reminders at 7:30 AM to remind me to check my calendar!

    Sam

    1. Ah yes, the dizzy feeling! I’m very familiar with that one.
      As for forgetting things, I’m hoping it’s related to just having so much to do. I write lists and more lists. If it’s not on the list there is a very good chance it won’t happen!
      If I find myself at a loose end you can pretty much guarantee there is something I’m forgetting to do.
      Thanks for stopping by Sam.

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