So how have you been lately? 


No surprise there. 

Busy has become the new knee-jerk answer to the age-old “How are you?” question. And that’s not a good thing.

Fine is fine

You can get a free pass with fine. Fine means nothing in particular is wrong. Everything is okay. Or at least not bad. Fine implies that you are somewhat in touch with your feelings. And that you’re feeling okay.

But busy? Busy is a whole other story.

Busy is nothing more than a socially acceptable way of saying “I’m not fine.” Which could mean one or all of the following:

  • I’m stressed
  • I’m exhausted
  • I’m overwhelmed
  • I’m overscheduled
  • I don’t know how I feel
  • I can’t even answer you
  • I’m barely holding it together

And yet most of us are guilty of this. The “Busy!” response pops out of our mouths before we even realize it’s happening. And we willingly accept the same answer from others.

You’re busy? Sure. That makes sense.

But does it?

Wearing the badge of busy

We’ve been trained to think that busy is good. At some point, we fully bought into the notion that the busier you are, the more successful you are. And if you’re not busy? Well, you must just be lazy.

But let’s consider the various definitions of busy, shall we? A quick Google search yields all of the following:

  • Having a great deal to do
  • Not at leisure; otherwise engaged
  • In use by a party or parties and not immediately accessible
  • Cluttered with small, unharmonious details
  • Foolishly or intrusively active
  • Full of distracting detail

Now let’s stop for a moment and ask ourselves a few key questions:

Are these the qualities you look for on others? Or aspire to have yourself?

Does this sound like the kind of person who is able to think things through and make good decisions?

Would a person with these characteristics make a good manager, leader or employee?

Do you trust this person with your child, your business, your money, or your health?

Let’s say you have an irregular heartbeat. Your cardiologist diagnoses your issue, then refers you to an electrophysiologist— a specialist who will hook you up to a bunch of electrodes, figure out exactly where the rogue impulses are coming from, then go into your heart with a catheter and burn those areas with an electrical charge to regulate your out-of-sync rhythm. Whoa. Sounds pretty incredible, right?

Now imagine your first visit with this skilled professional. The person who will soon literally have your heart in his hands. You innocently ask how he is doing. But instead of a firm handshake and a confident answer, what you get is a big sigh and a shrug of the shoulders. “Oh man,” your physician says, “just so busy, you know?”

Did your heart just skip a beat? If not, it should have.

Let’s face it. Our obsession with being busy has gone too far. It’s time to stop confusing busy with productive and overworking with overachieving. These things are not synonymous.

Breaking busy

So how do we go about re-training ourselves (and our teams) to recognize that busy shouldn’t be the new normal?

It all starts with you.

Re-define it

If you currently worship at the busy alter, it’s time to ask yourself why.

Do you really perform at a higher level when you’re busier? Or is that when things start slipping through the cracks?

Don’t fall for the busy-is-better hype. People who work 18 hours a day are not better people. Or more productive employees. In fact, research says they are less focused, less accurate, and more prone to mistakes. Plus, they may not have seen their loved ones in weeks.

If this is your definition of better, you need come up with a new one.

Turn off your auto-reply

Don’t bust out the “busy” answer next time someone asks you how you’re doing. Take a few seconds to re-frame what you really want to say.

  • I’m stressed – “I’m taking up yoga to help me relax.”
  • I’m exhausted – “I’m trying to carve out more time for myself.”
  • I’m overwhelmed – “I got a promotion and I’m afraid I’m in over my head.”
  • I’m overscheduled – “I’m good, but I’ve missed our coffee dates!”
  • I don’t know how I feel – “I think I need a personal day.”
  • I can’t even answer you – “We should catch up over lunch.”
  • I’m barely holding it together – “Thanks for asking. I’m a work in progress.”

Yes, this may take some effort. We’re all so well trained! But a simple self-check-in is the first step in getting back in touch with how you really feel, and how you really are.

Better yet, slow down for real

It’s okay to cut things out of your schedule. Decide what you’re going to give up and let people know when and how it’s happening. There may be resistance, but don’t let that deter you.

If you want to be less busy, you must give yourself (and others) permission to let go.

Having a hard time doing this? Treat it like a very important task.

  • Schedule downtime on your calendar
  • Give it your full, undivided attention (no multi-tasking!)
  • Ask a supportive person to help hold you accountable
  • Reward yourself when you make progress
  • Encourage others to follow your lead

Still not sure how to break out of the busy cycle? You can find more ideas here and here. After all, a little light reading never hurt anyone.

So sit down, kick off your shoes, and don’t worry about being busy.

Just be.

Photo by Ekaterina Muzyka

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