Busy is the new lazy – What “I’m busy” really means

http://www.dreamstime.com/-image20803444How many people do you work with who are constantly telling you how busy they are? Do you feel badly for them or are you more often annoyed to hear their complaints? How often do you doubt their motivation? You probably should.

Busyness translated

Janet Choi, in Busyness is Not a Virtue translates, “I’m busy” as one of several messages, including:

  • I matter. Being busy means I’m needed and significant in this great big universe. Though going around literally telling people, “I matter!” and expecting some sort of substantive conversation to result would be really weird, I’ll just say “I’m busy!” instead.
  • I am super-important. Doling out complaints and explanations about being too busy is the express line to a mini-ego trip. It’s going beyond “I matter” to “I matter … more than you” despite the fact that nobody ever wants to hear this.
  • I’m giving you an easy excuse. This is one of the easiest outs for stuff I don’t want to do. Alternatively, I’ve spent a lot of time being distracted or stuck, but this excuse allows me to feel okay with it.
  • I’m afraid. I keep relentlessly busy because I suffer from FOMO, or fear of missing out. I’m scared that I don’t matter, that I’m not important, that I’m not needed, so I’m going to spend my time on distracting stuff that doesn’t really matter, that’s not all that important, where I’m not actually needed.
  • I feel guilty. There’s fulfilling, meaningful stuff that I actually do want to do but I can rationalize it away instead of confronting challenges or changing direction. Alternatively, I think being busy is such a valuable quality that I’ll overbook myself to the point where I feel guilty for not getting to everything or for spending time on anything that doesn’t fit into a limited definition of “productive”.

I have a rule of thumb that anyone who tells me, “I’m slammed” automatically earns my skepticism. As Choi puts it, “Interestingly, I find that most people who are legitimately occupied — with their work, or family, or art, or what-have-you — rarely play the ‘too busy’ card, or go out of their way to make time for meaningful connection exactly because they’ve been busy.” She’s right on the money.

We don’t have to look far to find others who agree that busyness is not a virtue and can in fact be counterproductive. Thomas J. Delong writes in The Busyness Trap on Harvard Business Review:

The trap of busyness is so much a part of corporate culture that many times it clouds our vision of what’s really going on. We expect to be busy; we don’t know what to do when we’re not. The trap of busyness causes us to move with such mindless speed that we’re like the proverbial chicken running around with his head cut off. We plunge into our emails and meetings with a manic energy that forbids reflection, deeply honest conversations, and breaks from the routine.

Busyness and meaning

There are those that don’t see busyness as an intentional thing. Busyness could ultimately be a way to find meaning, as Tim Kreider writes in ‘The ‘Busy Trap‘ for the NY Times:

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.

For those who need the reassurance, not feeling busy creates anxiety.

Remarkably, the people who complain about busyness the least are consistently the ones getting the most done. The truly excellent and motivated people are simply putting in the right amount of time to get the right amount of work done for the right reasons. No excuses. No complaints.


Categories: Featured, Workplace Reality

Author:Jeanne Roué-Taylor

I'm fascinated by disruptive technology and its impact on our world. I manage sales operations for an excellent startup with a unique team of highly experienced data scientists.

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4 Comments on “Busy is the new lazy – What “I’m busy” really means”

  1. April 16, 2013 at 6:19 am #

    Jeanne, great post. I’ve seen busy used as a “shield” in my organization many times. Many folks misinterpret a strategy of focus and discipline (which helps us immensely in executing our strategy) with permission to say “no” when they feel like it. Along the lines of the meanings you pointed out, they may be saying they are important or feeling guilty, but they do it and rationalize it as being disciplined and focused.

    The meaning you outlined about being super-important is probably the biggest meaning I see people attach to busyness. They think that busy = reputation. But, they don’t realize that in most (good) organizations, reputation comes with getting $hit done! As simple as that. People want to work with people that get $hit done and get it done well. They build reputation that way, not by churning through a big to do list of meaningless crap.

    MTCW, at least.

  2. Rachel Brennan
    April 25, 2013 at 2:05 am #

    I can’t agree entirely with this, especially in the case of knowledge workers. Though it is possible to abuse the term “I’m busy.”, there are also many instances of it being legitimate.

    There are a few underlying assumptions supporting this argument:

    1. That your priorities are aligned.
    2. That the right amount of resources are available to accomplish the minimum of what needs to be done.
    3. There is an acceptable ROTI (Return On Time Invested).
    4. Efficient processes are in place.

    There truly are only so many hours in a day. As Ron mentioned in his earlier comment, $hit needs to get done. To actually accomplish that, tasks have to be prioritized, and not everything can be priority 1 for everyone. If your priority 1 or 2 is someone else’s priority 3 or 4, you could very well get the “I am too busy… (at the moment)” answer. I would make a guess that the “at the moment’ part isn’t always clearly or explicitly articulated.

    Being under resourced requires that triage to be more severe. Combine that with prioritization and “I’m too busy” will unfortunately become a common answer. If kept up too long, or is too severe, under resourcing burns out the available resources. This triggers a self-preservation mode (or severe depression) at some point, which exasperates the problem.

    Available time per resource is a finite thing. Things that require deep reflection and/or research, which usually are more meaningful and valuable than a quick fix/answer, sometimes require too big of an investment to get ROTI. (I think I just turned time into a currency.) Unacceptable ROTI will (and should) get something deprioritized pretty easily. Something comes along with a high ROTI and is also high priority, 2 or 3 other items just got deprioritized.

    This also all rests on the assumption that there are efficient processes in place, and the appropriate supporting tools available. Wasting a high value worker’s time on low value tasks keeps other high value work from being done. Lower priority items will suffer. Spending 30 minutes trying to track someone down who “knows how this works” is a huge waste of time and an easily addressable one at that… and do they really know how it works?? That 30 minutes cascades down and 30 minutes of lower priority items just got pushed out or fell off the to do list entirely. Requiring 2 hours of frustration to accomplish something that could take 15 minutes if automated is right up there as well. Since I can go on and on about this particular subject I will leave it at that.

    So, now that I have taken 20 minutes out of my day to read your blog, and reflect on it a bit, there are 20 less minutes devoted to completion of my priority 1’s, which means priority 2’s are going to suffer by that same amount. Since I rarely get to priority 3’s or 4’s they won’t even notice. I just have to hope that the thought and time put into this will be reusable for something down the road (and I suspect it just might show up somewhere else soon). So, don’t judge someone too harshly or too quickly for “being busy”, check out your organization and processes first.


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    […] Busy is the New Lazy […]

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    […] Busy is the new lazy – What “I’m busy” really means (successfulworkplace.com) […]

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