When did ‘busy’ become so popular?

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

This post is not about Instagram, yet that’s where I’d like to start.

Now, I’m brand new to Instagram. So far it’s an unknown, exciting, and a little bit scary world.

For me, Instagram is another platform to highlight management and leadership. So I post nice photos of my pets, plants and sunrises – lots of sunrises! It challenges and amuses me to then try to link these photos to something being discussed in the healthcare leadership community. From time to time I also post my own quotes (i.e. my ponderings) without the pets, plants or sunrises. I am DEFINITELY NOT an Instagram star, and still get excited when someone follows me (BTW, I can be found here  )

Over a week ago, I posted one of my quotes and this seemed to get a little more attention than photos of my alpacas – and let’s face it, alpacas are pretty popular at the moment! It doesn’t mean that suddenly I am an instagram star – I’m not talking big numbers. Yet I was curious that this particular post received interest. On reflection, I wrote a blog post a few years ago on this and it also was popular. My Instagram posted quote was:

“Being busy is not the same as being productive”.

I was compelled to put this out there after a week on the phone to colleagues and clients. For each conversation, I would – because I am polite – start off by asking them how they are. I’d have to say that 9 times out of 10 I would receive a response I was not sure what to do with. It was either “I’m good….busy.” or “I’m so busy!”

When did ‘busy’ take over like this? When did it sneak up on us and infect us with its undertones of tiredness, frustration, self importance, expectation and competition? Yes, I said competition. It seems to me that sometimes people say they are busy as a challenge – are you as busy as me? More often than not, people just seem a little tired or distracted.

When did ‘busy’ become so popular?

When people tell me they are busy, I’m often not sure how to respond. Is busy exciting? Is busy stressful? Is busy fulfilling? Is it draining? Does being busy mean that they are experiencing the fullness of life, or does it mean they are in distress? Am I meant to tell them I am busy too so that we can all feel comfortable?

What does ‘busy’ mean?

The definition of busy as an adjective is ‘having a great deal to do’. That sounds like daily life, and could be positive or negative.

When people say they are busy, it sometimes comes out as an automated response. Do we EXPECT people to be busy now? Is this what success looks like in our modern world? Does ‘busy’ equal “I’ve made it!”? Do we sometimes say it because we’re too embarrassed to say “Well, I’m great! because I just sleep for eight hours, had an awesome coffee and am looking forward to the weekend.”

Are we worried what people might think if we are not busy?

Or are we using this word as an implied cry for help in a stressful world?

Being productive means getting things done, achieving. When I coach healthcare leaders, and they tell me how busy they are, it sends up a flag for me – this is something to explore. I do this to know whether there is an underlying issue. Because busy is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’. Are they focussing so much on being busy, that they are not focussing on getting things done? You know, when we feel overwhelmed by our to-do list and so become paralysed by where to start, how much time we have, or which task is the priority. Those times when we can find 5 different ways to write out a list of things to do, find that it’s incredibly important to clean our computer keyboard, or desperately need to debrief last nights Game of Thrones?

Has ‘busy’ snuck into our lives to distract us? To be used as a badge of honor, or a competition with others. Perhaps to work its evil magic by delaying us from learning to be clear on our goals, prioritise our tasks, say no to unnecessary requests, to focus on one thing at a time, and while we are at it, stop procrastinating!

Here’s the thing…

“How are you?” is not a question about your to-do list!

I became so interested in the ‘busy’ phenomenon a few years ago. This started for me when a colleague I hadn’t seen for a while asked me “How are you?” Now this is interesting…I responded “Good – busy.”

She laughed and said “That’s not what I asked you – I asked how you are, not how much you have to do.”

This comment had a big impact. It made me realise that busy was a vague word that didn’t really hold much meaning, and certainly did not answer the question being asked.

I think I used the word ‘busy’ because somewhere along the way I had attached meaning to it – that busy equals “I have value in this world”. At times I’m sure I used it because I was stressed and didn’t know how to ask for help.

Now when people ask me “How are you?” I try to respond with a true refection of my wellbeing; how I am feeling.

And I definitely try not to tell people how busy I am in the course of conversation. It’s usually not relevant, and really, it’s not super interesting. Sorry, it’s true. Most people don’t really care how busy I am.

An additional benefit of responding with words other than ‘busy’, is that I think it makes me different to what is fast becoming the norm – I don’t want to be the norm. I don’t want to drag people down by loading them with everything I have to do, or create competition with them to see who is the busiest. I want to have a meaningful conversation and I’m not sure ‘busy’ is a good starting point.

And remarkable as it may seem, I also am ok with not being busy at times. In my opinion (for what it’s worth!) life is not a world-wide competition to be the busiest. Sometimes I’d rather have much less than ‘a great deal to do’.

I’m constantly working with managers to help them get some balance back in their lives. Balanced life, balanced leader. To be our most effective and productive, we actually need some down-time, some time-out, some quiet, or relaxation. This gets our brains and bodies refreshed, including helping the right brain-waves to bring on inspiration – ever noticed that sometimes our best ideas come during down time…you know, walking the dog, sitting on the beach, staring at the sunrise?

Ah, sunrise. Brings me full circle back to Instagram.

Remember, busy is not the same as being productive. Are you focussed on achieving, or paralysed by how busy you are?

So take some time out, rethink the busy culture around you, like my instagram posts, then prioritise your tasks and get results! That’s the badge of honor you want!






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