• Debbie Innes

Beware the badge of busy

Are you busy just now? I imagine the way you might answer that question will depend on where you are, what you’re doing and who is asking. I used to ask that question a lot more when I worked in a team, usually under the guise of “Do you have a minute?” In those cases, ‘a minute’ usually became 10, 20 or 30 minutes and sometimes even an hour. This does happen less now, for me anyway (and perhaps even for you if you are working from home?), but this idea of being busy has been bothering me for a while now.


Being busy can mean a lot of different things to me. Sometimes, being busy is having enough to do to keep me engaged in activities that I like to do, even if those are work-related activities. Sometimes being busy can mean feeling pressured, like there’s not enough time to do all I need to or want to do. Sometimes I have used ‘being busy’ as an excuse to get out of things I don’t want to do (“Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t look after your hamster that week because I’m really busy.”). I’ve also used it as an effective procrastination technique, as it helps me believe I don’t really have the time I need to do that one horrible task I am dreading – “I can’t do my taxes right now; I have to start the laundry, make lunch, clean the bathroom, finish that blog post, etc.”


Whatever ‘busy’ might mean to you at any given moment, the concept seems to have become inextricably linked to the concept of ‘success.’ We ‘work hard’ to become successful. If we are ‘busy’ or don’t have time for certain things, the implication is that we are somehow successful or important. Even if we don’t think that explicitly, the opposite is certainly true: if we are not busy (or if we don’t work), we are called a ‘loafer’ or a ‘scrounger’ or ‘lazy’. I had never really thought of my own tendency to always be busy or my interest in busy-ness until one day I was sat chatting to my husband. I must have just come into the room my husband was in, and in an attempt to ‘show interest’ and start a conversation, I asked, “What are you doing?” For the first time, ever, my husband asked me, “Why do I always need to be doing something?”


His question surprised me and stopped me in my tracks. Why did he always need to be doing something? Why was I always asking him what he was doing? Since then (and that’s been a while now), I have wondered about this ‘doing-ness.’ Doing is being busy too. I mean “busy-ness” is defined as “the state or condition of having a great deal to do.” I’ve pondered the balance between doing and being here before, but I’ve never really considered why I feel a need to be busy all the time until more recently.



In simplifying my life over the past couple of years, which, yes, I’m still working on, I’m now starting to focus on simplifying the flow of my days. To me that means having enough to do each day and yet not too much to do, a fine and difficult balancing act to achieve. The past year has certainly challenged my idea of what busy looks like and has, thankfully, helped me clarify what feels manageable, what feels too much and what feels too little. I see this as actively and intentionally shunning the ‘badge’ of being busy. I know how I feel when someone is too busy for me and I wouldn’t want to put that vibe out to anyone else (though I’m quite sure I still do at times).


What is the badge of busy and why am I shunning it? As many people have spoken about over the last several years, the badge of busy is like a badge of honor. It can be a way of measuring self-worth; if we don’t have a lot of spare time, we must be accomplishing lots and maybe we are even important. Some suggest that we have come to believe that ‘being busy’ equals ‘being productive,’ but they are different. If busy is defined as having a great deal to do, productive is defined as ‘bringing forth’ or ‘creating.’ Thus these two words are not synonymous; not even close. In fact, when it comes to productivity, less is more. The less you have to do and the less pressure you feel, the more able you will be to produce or create. Being overly busy may actually be the enemy of productivity. And, if we don’t believe we’re getting enough done, it could be the case that our self-worth decreases. Been there; done that. Didn’t like it so much. This is the first reason I'm shunning the badge of busy.


Buying into the idea that busy is good can also be a way of avoiding yourself or someone else. “Oh, I don’t have time to do that” (whatever ‘that’ might be) is probably one of the most socially acceptable excuses for denying ourselves or others of our time. And that’s just what it is, an excuse. If you don’t believe me, take an honest look back over the last year. What did you do with any extra time that you had (assuming you did have extra time; I get this pandemic could have created other pressures on your time)? Did you finally get around to all those things you had been telling yourself that you would do when you had the time? If you did, that’s excellent. But if you didn’t, there’s a strong possibility that time – and not enough of it – was not the real reason you have never started those things before. It can be really hard to sit with yourself and be honest with yourself about what’s important to you and what’s not so important to you without putting the blame on time.


In a similar vein, it’s almost impossible for some to just say no. And I don’t mean ‘just say no’ in the Nancy Reagan kind of way. I mean, when someone asks you to do something and you either can’t or don’t want to do it, how often do you say ‘No’ and leave it at that? Usually, it’s more like: No, I’m sorry, I can’t attend that meeting because I’ll be on a training that day, or, No, I’m sorry, I can’t pick you up because I’ll be at work at that time. The ‘because’ part really isn’t necessary, but we seem to put it in to justify that we really are busy so can’t accommodate the request. What would happen if we just said ‘No’ and left it at that? And who’s willing to find out?! I’ve been experimenting with that and I’ve found that no one really bothers when I just say no and don’t follow it up with a reason. Very rarely am I pressed further. Which makes me think that giving our reasons absolves our own guilt at having to say no. Or, we are providing a justification for ourselves, telling ourselves that we really are busy and can’t be as accommodating as we’d like to be. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that if we refused requests, we might think less of ourselves. But what's wrong with not being able to help or with it not suiting us to help? What's wrong if we need the rest more? In striving for simplicity and balance, I've found I must incorporate rest as well as busyness, so I've had to say no a bit more and allow myself to be ok about that. A little bit more challenging, but another reason to shun the badge of busy.




The final reason I’m shunning the badge of busy is because, the more I do so, the more I find I have plenty more to give to others while still feeling I have enough time leftover for me. Probably crucial in my line of work, but also, surprisingly, sometimes forgotten. I find I do still get things done, lots of things, actually, and I also have time to relax. That ‘less is more’ thing does seem to be true. And, I haven’t had to get up hours earlier or stay up hours later. If anything, I’m probably sleeping more now than ever – and I’m certainly finding it easier to get to sleep and stay asleep since taking off my ‘busy’ badge. So there may be something in that quote attributed to Socrates: “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” And now, as we come out of our homes back out into the world, could be a real opportunity to really think about how we want to use our time. This could be the perfect time to make intentional decisions about just how busy we are going to allow ourselves to be. What a gift this could be. So what do you think you'd like to do with your badge of busy?


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