“I’m So Busy!”…And Why I’m Going To Stop Saying That


This was me on a typical Monday: skidding into work to run up to the 5th floor, grab stuff from my desk, slide into a morning team meeting, then fly out the door, get on the road and drive out to a client meeting, enjoy a late lunch (a Clif bar and banana from the gas station) while stuck in traffic on I-495, rush back to the office to email documents and follow-up on stuff clients "urgently" requested while I was out, check in with the boss, tie up loose ends so the next day wouldn't start off a total sh!t-show.  Tuesday-Friday: basically just repeat. This was my life in Sales.  It's what we all did.  Every day. Does this sound like you too? 

I enjoyed lots of things about my job in Sales…but I did not enjoy the frantic urgency in almost every task.  

I gradually transitioned out of Sales and into life as an entrepreneur, craving work with more "meaning" and freedom to choose my own tasks.  A year into my full-time, alternative work-life and here's the truth: not much has changed!   

Although my tasks are different (and often accomplished in yoga pants at my kitchen table), my life is still a frantic jumble of to-do's and deadlines. 

My answer when asked "how are you?" is still "ugh, crazy busy!" (and probably with a look of panic on my face).  And how do they answer? "wow, that's great!".  It got me thinking...why is that great?  I'm sending up a flair, I can't sustain this level of busy, by saying "ugh, crazy busy" I'm really asking "how do you manage it all?" 

In the past months trying to balance and tame my hectic work-load and blossom into a wellness guru who's got it all figured out and lives in blissful tranquility from one precious moment of zen to the next (that'll never be me, btw), I've been noticing more stuff about our busy modern culture. 

"Being busy" seems to be a status symbol of success...it proves we are needed, sought out, relevant…our work is important because we are so busy, we're an awesome parent because we are so busy. And doing anything less is neglectful, missing out on getting ahead…and we feel guilty. 

So, I did some research.  And here's what I found...

  1. When we say "busy" what we really mean is "hectic".  Busy, by definition, means "engaged in action"...that sounds so intentional, doesn't it?  We should all be busy! Busy working in the garden, busy in the kitchen, busy playing with the kids, busy with a craft project, busy planning a trip. Hectic, on the other hand, means "full of incessant activity; frantic"...yeah that sounds about right.

  2. Being too cool for time off has, indeed, become a marker of success in our modern American society as reflected by advertising (often an indicator of social norms).  For example, compare this Cadillac commercial of the early 90's to this Cadillac commercial from 2014...I bet you'll be surprised!

  3. Busyness does not, in reality, equate to success and being productive.  It is not an indicator that you're a trail-blazer, top-performer, brilliant entrepreneur, or an amazing parent.  Overbusyness is just not productive.  Multi-tasking everything all the time leads to errors, poor quality work, inefficient use of time, and a lack of fulfillment.  "Emotional distress due to overbusyness manifests as difficulty focusing and concentrating, impatience, and irritability, trouble getting adequate sleep, and mental and physical fatigue" says Joseph Bienvenu, psychiatrist and Director of Anxiety Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital.  

  4. Busyness does lead to burn-out, anxiety, chronic stress, and a life lacking satisfaction, meaning, and value.  Busyness has long-term negative impacts on happiness, wellbeing, and health. 

  5. The myth that busyness is desirable persists because we continue to say "I'm so busy!", rushing around, jamming our calendars full of clients, and actually bragging about it...we put the busy expectation, not only on ourselves, but the people around us, which is reciprocated, and confirms our idea of busyness in a continuous feedback loop. 

"There is a norm toward being busy - and that busyness confirms your value.  Your potential worth is somehow wrapped up in the perceived lack of time you have." ~Erik Helzer, social psychologist

So what do we all do about it then?  Here are a bunch of strategies...

  1. Redefine your idea of success.  What does “success” mean to you?  Write it out...what does it feel like?  What are you doing and how are you spending your time in the successful life you envision?  Who is with you? And what does your day look like? 

  2. Stop multitasking. I figured this one out recently and let me tell you, I’m more productive and my mindset has improved so much! Focusing on one thing at a time lets me actually enjoy the thing I’m doing and I usually get it done much quicker than if I was half-thinking about something else, or worse, actually doing something else. Studies actually show that multitasking can reduce productivity by up to 40%!

  3. Stop comparing yourself to other people.  This is, admittedly, a tough one! We look at other people and think, "they're so successful" and "I should be doing what they're doing".  But you really don't know what someone else's personal definition of success is (could be different from yours) and you don't know if they've actually achieved so-called success.  Also, we all have to find our own, individual, route to success...do what works for our unique selves and let other people do what works for them.   

  4. Spend less time (way less time) on social media.  For so many reasons.

  5. End the perpetual feedback loop (see #4 in the list above) by rephrasing our answer to "how are you?".  Instead of “I’m so busy,” share a comment about a project you're working on or what you're loving about work lately. Such as "I just had a great brainstorming session", or "I'm enjoying this project at work".  Be a role model and break the dangerous busyness cycle.  Let's collectively decide to change the social norm.

  6. Be intentional with your to-do list.  Plan out your tasks each morning and be diligent about what you choose to focus on during the day.  More productive, focused minutes means more time for planning ahead, staying organized, and taking care of yourself and the people around you.  Try the 1-3-5 Rule of organizing your to-do's at the beginning of each day.  Or try a time tracking app like ATracker or RescueTime to discover where you're really spending your time.

  7. If you manage people, set an example. Don't call or email employees after hours. Don’t respond to calls or emails after hours yourself. Take vacations and time off, talk about it, and encourage your people to do the same.  Oh, and don't respond to calls or emails when you're off! If possible, allow for flex-hours, remote work days, or other accommodations for a better work-life balance. Praise employees for working smart not for working long hours.

  8. Get comfortable with the fact that there will always be tasks on your to-do list. A to-do list is really just a constantly evolving iteration of what tasks need your attention…and it will always be there.  You're allowed to peace-out and breathe for a sec, go outside, take time for exercise, take time for your spouse.  You can always get back to your super-important tasks. 

  9. Delegate tasks.  Ask coworkers for help on a report, get family to pitch in, or hire professional help with time-consuming stuff like organizing your home office, spring cleaning the house, yard clean-up and landscaping, painting, bookkeeping, web design, marketing, etc.

  10. Really know that being busy doesn't prove your worth.  You are necessary, important, and worthy of success, love, and joy just as you are!  You're not a better parent, entrepreneur, or employee if you "do all the things".  Instead, being more selective about where you focus your time and energy can lead to greater results.  Have a strong work ethic, roll up your sleeves and work smart, prioritize tasks and be disciplined in following through....do that!  But don’t define your worth by how worn out you are at the end of the day.

  11. Challenge yourself with these questions: What would it feel like to work efficiently and to accomplish tasks with a clear, calm mindset.  What would it feel like to move from task to task with deliberate purpose and intention...focused rather than frantic, impatient, and irritable?  What would it feel like to go to sleep with the sense that your day's work felt meaningful and satisfying rather than feeling exhausted, nervous, and anxious?  What do you need to do to be less hectic?

If you want to read more about busyness, check out these articles…

The ‘Busy’ Trap by Tim Kreider, The New York Times

Research: Why Americans Are So Impressed By Busyness by Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, & Anat Keinan, Harvard Business Review

The Cult of Busy by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, Johns Hopkins Health Review

Being Busy Is Nothing To Brag About by Caroline Dowd-Higgins, Chicago Tribune

Want to Be More Productive? Stop Multi-Tasking by Lisa Quast, Forbes