We are in the midst of a busyness epidemic.
I’m busy, my co-workers are busy, you’re doubtless super busy, we’re all raising increasingly busy children. Even our pets look busy these days.
Ask yourself this though – with all this busyness, how much is actually getting done?
Do you find yourself occasionally pining for the days before social media and twenty-four notifications? Looking back into the mists of time, does it seem like you used to get a lot more actually accomplished during the average day?
As the pace of modern life quickens, we’re increasingly mistaking busyness for effectiveness. Only the latter truly counts, yet it’s the former that we wear as a badge of pride.
I’ve been guilty of it myself, puffing out my chest in response to simple questions and getting ready to painstakingly delineate how terribly, frantically, overwhelmingly busy I find myself in that particular moment.
You’ve almost certainly also come across this phenomenon in your own working environment.
Is there a person in your immediate vicinity who delights in telling everyone else how horribly busy they are at the the slightest excuse? Do they seem to exist in a state of constant mad panic dashing from one urgent situation to the next?
Is Busyness Effective?
Try this simple thought experiment with constantly “busy” people. Ignore the surface whirl and start making a mental note of how much real value this person is delivering on a weekly basis. Ask yourself, what are the actual results that emerge from the cloud of heat and noise?
It almost goes without saying but the busy person we’re talking about here could of course be you.
Nine times out of ten, you’ll find that it’s all just bluster to mask what is usually underlying disorganisation or lack of performance. Very often, it’s a leading indicator for more serious issues such as burnout and work-related depression.
Rather than rewarding or encouraging busyness, as we so often do, we should be taking it as a warning sign that there is a problem in a system somewhere that needs to be addressed.
Or seeing it as a clear indicator that there is no underlying system in place whatsoever.
Stop Showcasing Your Lack of Organisation
The truth is, genuinely busy people – those with an enormous amount of real rather than imagined work on their plate – do not run around shouting about how overwhelmed they are.
They know that’s a complete waste of valuable energy that could be more productively applied to the task at hand.
They also instantly recognise constant complaints of busyness in other people as a sign of weakness and uncertainty rather than the contrary.
Learn From The Best
The world is full of genuinely busy people. Busy in the positive sense of the word: active, engaged, continually executing on their goals.
None of these people make a big song and dance about it.
Ask yourself this, when was the last time you heard Richard Branson complain about how busy he was? Or Elon Musk?
Faced with the challenge of learning Mandarin while simultaneously being CEO of a company with 7000 employees, did Mark Zuckerberg throw up his hands in despair and howl about his workload?
Or look at the example of Joe Rogan. Joe Rogan is all of the following things to an extremely high level:
- A professional stand-up comedian.
- Host of one of the most successful podcasts on earth.
- A professional MMA commentator.
- Co-owner of a successful supplements and fitness equipment company.
- A successful television presenter and sitcom actor.
That’s just his primary list of concerns. He’s also a father of three, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a nearly pro-level pool player.
You will struggle to find instances of him complaining about how busy he is.
The Frantically Empty Core of The Problem
So, where does this all this rush and manufactured urgency come from?
The American humourist Tim Kreider has a wonderful essay on the subject – The Busy Trap – in which he goes to the very heart of the matter:
“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.”
This is a fundamentally true observation. Much of our busyness is imagined, a figment of the mind that we use to reassure ourselves that our actions have meaning.
Naturally, there are also genuine external factors at play. We live in a real world of obligations and impositions and they must be handled as elegantly as possible.
But there is also a worrying modern trend in which we are enormously afraid of sitting with ourselves in any kind of silence or stillness, terrified at the prospect of contemplating a situation rather than blindly reacting to stimuli.
People are so continually aroused by the constant stream of updates, notifications and information they are exposed to that they go into a state of mild panic in the face of silence or space of any kind.
Hence, one of the primary emotional needs for constant busyness.
A Shocking Experiment
Not with me so far? Consider this recent genuinely astonishing experiment reported in a study by Timothy Wilson first published in the journal Science.
Participants in the experiment were first left alone in a room with their thoughts for fifteen minutes. On being questioned afterwards, most reported this experience as being uncomfortable.
They were then left alone again for a further fifteen minutes. This time, they were given the option of administering a small electric shock to themselves whenever they wanted.
Two thirds of the men and one quarter of the women shocked themselves at least once.
Think about that for a moment.
We are so terrified at the prospect of being alone with our thoughts that we will literally electrocute ourselves in order to feel distracted.
So, what’s the solution? Well, the first step is recognising the pattern of behaviour.
With that done, try the following as a subsequent step towards regaining control of your internal and external environments:
Regardless of how busy you feel, try to commit to a month of not expressing that thought.
If you’re turning down a request, go for a simple “No” – accompanied by a real reason – instead of the blanket “busy”excuse.
Frame your challenges as a series of interesting steps along a road you’ve chosen to take rather than an impenetrable fog of busyness you find yourself marooned in.
It’s a small step but one that could prove crucial in taking back your time and conquering that constant sense of overwhelm that threatens us all.