Let’s Stamp Out Busyness

Earlier tonight I tweeted,

twitter post

This disdain for the word busy has been with me for a while. It's simply becoming more annoying. When someone tells you how busy they are, I never know how to respond. Should I feel sorry for them? Congratulate them? Offer to help? When people ask how busy I am, I usually respond, "No busier than you" or "Do you really want to know?" The truth is no one is really interested. Your declaration or acknowledgement of your busyness is usually meaningless at best, depressing at worst. 

I'm not suggesting your life isn't full but for the most part it's the life you've chosen. You can argue that sometimes it's not, but you decided to have kids, you choose to work where you work, and you choose to be a good person and help others out. All awesome things. Even if you're the exception to the rule and have been coerced into your lifestyle by some outside force or alien, what would my sympathy offer you? Busy is the default status and talking about it as if you're in some type of pissing contest has no purpose. 

clone of shareski

I don't usually preach but I know too many people who's perceived and declared busyness only serve to bring others down. It translates into, "my job is too hard", "my organization doesn't value me", "if you worked as hard as I do, maybe we'd be better off." We live in a culture fueled by busyness. Anyone who says they're not busy is assumed lazy. What a warped world where we seem to live in that honors this badge so reverently and questions anyone who doesn't want to join the ranks. 

I worked for a principal one time that I knew was had tons going on. His desk was full of notes from people to call, his day full of meetings but he made every kid and adult in the school feel like he had time for them. If people asked if he was busy, he would brush off the question and invite you to come in and sit down. He never made you feel rushed or that you were keeping him from something. 

So I'm not asking you to quit anything. You do what you need to do. Just stop telling everyone about it and when someone asks you if you're busy and you can't think of anything clever to say just say "no comment".  Thank you.

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  • Being a Principal on Call today and being at one school in the morning and another in the afternoon, teaching one class at the morning school and the entire afternoon at the other, it was a real “no comment” day. Loved it, and will be working at three schools as principal for the rest of the week. It’s a great opportunity to reconnect with a number of teachers and even some students I used to work a bit with when I was managing technology for the district.

    Enjoyed your point of view and your super idea for a photo(graphic) representation of your ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    • Adding the “loved it” is the only way I’ll allow you to use the word. 😉 Well done Bob.

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  • Hadass Eviatar

    Totally agree, Dean. It really is another way of whining, isn’t it? That is probably why it is so aggravating. Nice pic!

  • You have stuck a very strong nerve with me. Bravo! I currently have three jobs that I LOVE because I chose them! So, imagine my dismay when people with one job (usually 9-5 with few outside commitments) tell me they are too busy. The message to me is that my request, no matter how small, is insignificant….or I am in significant. I have found that people have time for what they want to have time for. I never tell people I am too busy for a conversation or something that’s meaningful to me. So, I say people can tell me they are busy, but they need to be ready for an eye roll and the hidden knowledge of my insignificance to be transparent.

    Thanks for this post!

  • Kyle

    What a good piece of advice. I have been caught up in the ‘busy’ syndrome for a while. Thanks for liberating me from my self created pity party.

  • Mike Nantais

    Busy can be good, not as an excuse but as a good thing to be. As you say, we mostly are *&$y because of choice and wouldn’t have it any other way. I love the comment about your Principal from the past always taking time for people even when he had lots to do – a sign of a good leader. Great point of view – and the photo is awesome!

  • Barb Forster

    Possibly, just possibly when a person says they are too busy to … maybe they are not whining but saying “I have enough going on in my life right now and I am choosing not to take one more thing on.” Life is about choices, and I am a teacher, a mom, a wife, a friend and so much more. And, for the most part I love my life the way it is, however, there are days when I AM BUSY, and maybe even, heaven forbid TOO BUSY. It is very condescending to take a person’s comment of “I’m busy” and put your own eye rolling judgment on it. You have no idea what is going on in that person’s world at that particular time.

    • But Barb, everyone is in the same position. I have no problem with someone saying no to a request. But it’s because they are choosing to spend their time differently. When my kids ask me “Can we buy this?” My response shouldn’t be “We can’t afford it” but rather, “we choose to spend our money differently”.

      It may be semantics but there’s no question the busy badge is wore with pride in most cases. Busy is relative. That’s fine. Everyone makes their own assessment as to what they can handle but when you tell me you’re busy, there’s an assumption that I’m not or that you’re busier than I am. That’s where I roll my eyes.

  • Dave

    Penelope Trunk dances around topics like these now and then and has some really interesting things to say; it might be worth skimming her archives to see some of what she’s written about work-life, success, and happiness.

    From what she’s written, I’ve formed the idea that nearly everything I say at work needs to pass through a “pick your battles”-type filter. If someone asks if I’m busy, do I want to tell them I feel overwhelmed but that I’ll manage? No, I don’t want to waste their time trying to support me when I don’t need it. Beyond that, she points out that whether people perceive you to be happy is a bigger determinant of your success than whether you are incrementally better at what you do…so it’s generally a bad idea to project a negative image.

    Smile and nod is actually the best answer? It turns out it is, especially if you’re polite and also ask your co-worker how busy they are; wanting to share their own situation is probably the real reason they asked about yours! 🙂

  • Great post! It reminds me of a quote from Lou Holtz:      
    “Don’t tell your problems to people: eighty percent don’t care; and the other twenty percent are glad you have them”

    I wonder if being an Edtech brings with it the mentality you speak of, Dean, of not being constantly overwhelmed by busy lives. We blog, read, create media, communicate with, through, and about technology not because we are not busy, but despite being busy. We persevere; we are optimists

    • Interesting perspective Danny,

      Maybe the whole concept of filtering information, multi-tasking or fast task switching, somehow makes us more comfortable with a lot going on. Maybe.

  • Barb Forster

    I am back Dean because I still don’t agree. If as an example you ask me how my night was and I say to you “I had a really busy night” I am not looking for sympathy, nor advice, nor am I assuming you could have had no where near as busy a night as me. I am not about to give you a running list of everything that occured in that evening because for one thing I am sure you would not care but also because that was not my intention of the statement. It was a statement plain and simple. The same can be said if you ask me to for example join a committee or a meeting. If I say to you, sorry I am just too busy right now to take that on, I again am not going to go into the details of why I feel I am too busy. It is a statement, yes based on how I choose to spend my time, but still only a statement, based on my own personal experience. These experiences are mine to own and live with and so (sorry to bring the eye roll up again) your judgement is not needed or appreciated when I say the “b” word.
    A collegue came up to me today and said “do you know who you were blogging with last night??? ” And I had said “no, I just knew his statement ticked me off”. Until next time Dean! Thanks for giving me something to mull over while I was so busy today! Its been fun 🙂

    • I appreciate the push back Barb and truly I get where you’re coming from. I suppose the specific example of what I did last night might be one where busy might be more easily defined. But I’m thinking more of the general, constant state of busy that 99.9% of people considered themselves to be. It’s like saying I’m really breathing today. It serves no purpose. I’m waiting for people to start saying I’m not busy. Then we can reintroduce the concept of busy since it might mean something.

      Truly, thanks for engaging in conversation. I always have time for that. 😉

  • Barb Forster

    Anytime! Just don’t get me started on the word tired!

  • Lona

    As a reason to not participate in something:

    I find that the only time I use the word “busy” is when I am being directed to do something I do not consider a priority or choice. It seems more polite than “no” or “are you kidding?” or “I don’t value what you do and therefore am not willing to commit my precious time and energy to your vision/passion”. Busy, precisely because everyone can relate, has less judgment than explaining why my values and priorities don’t include choosing another’s vision or passion project. We are never too busy to do what we love (i.e. I manage to watch House once a week no matter what is going on, I can’t find 30 minutes to exercise…)and so perhaps people should take busy as a polite “no thank you”.

    As a general conversation fodder:

    In a general acquaintance-type exchange (meeting an old neighbour in the mall, teller you slightly know at SuperStore) busy has replaced “fine” as a standard response….How are you today? “Busy”. Don’t think too much about it. Smile and move on.

    Or, in a conversation with someone you have a relationship with, as long as we accept that we all come from different places in our lives, I think that people who are sharing the “I am busy” message are busier than they usually are…not busier than you or someone else. Listen to what they are saying or what help they are asking for or what pat on the back they need…and then give it to them. Don’t disregard or judge those who choose to share as whiners or one-uppers. If this is truly the case consider not the word busy but why you are choosing to participate in a relationship with them.

    • Thanks Lona,

      That’s reasonable. My rant was likely taken in the context of the “general acquaintance-type exchange”. But it’s always as you say, a matter of priorities. Busy means, “I’m choosing to do different stuff”, which i totally understand. My experience is that most “busy” references fall under the whining category but I’ll concede that it’s not always the case as a few have already scolded me for. (and rightly so)

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  • Dave MacLean

    If you want to get something done… give it to a busy person. Nuff said!

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