Having a busy day?

Have you ever slowed down long enough to notice how being asked if you are busy has virtually all but replaced being asked how you are as the common greeting in our society?  To the question “how are you?“, you might have replied “I’m well, thanks“, or “a bit average today“, or “busy“.  But now everyone jumps straight to “having a busy day?“, or some derivative thereof.

The purpose of such greetings and salutations is to acknowledge the person before you and to enquire after their status.  Asking if someone is well (“hey, how are you?“) enquires after their wellbeing status – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.

I’m in fine spirits today.”

Fitter than a butcher’s dog!

It seems, now, in our modern world, that the status of one’s wellbeing has been supplanted by a new social status signal – our current state of busyness.

Having a busy day?

Yeah, flat out mate.  There’s always something going on!”

Nobody enquires about whether you are fulfilling your purpose and passions.

Are you working with purpose today?

Nor are you asked whether you are working with minimal distractions.

Having a focused day?

Rarely are we even asked if we are having a productive day.  It is always about being busy.

In our increasingly meritocratic societies, we’ve come to revere busyness as the mark of someone (typically a man) getting out there and making stuff happen – forging their own luck – being a battler – working against the odds – not working for the man.  Busyness means business, which means success.

In employees, being busy “working for the man” is a sign you should give up your 9-5 job and start hustling 5-9 for yourself.  If a woman is busy and rushing about all over the show (see “Rushing Woman Syndrome“), her busyness is a state of being frenzied and frazzled rather than being seen as a status of her absolute success in the same way we perhaps see it in men.

If we define stress as the point at which the demands on our life exceed our capacity and resources, busyness, then, seems to be the point at which our capacity exactly matches our demands, and where being “busy” implies that the whole lot would come crashing down were it not for the brave and plucky business person battling hard to hold the whole show together.  Such notions are even encapsulated in the common definitions of busy;

  • having a great deal to do
  • labouring
  • hustling
  • toiling
  • slaving at
  • rushed off one’s feet
  • hard-pressed
  • time-poor

Hello, are you time-poor today?

Busy” has taken on the feel of an overused humblebrag, a self-deprecating yet showy effort to tout one’s own importance, value and desirability at work or among friends.
In our information-drenched, 24/7 workplaces, where time for leisure has become an even scarcer commodity for many professionals than money to buy luxury goods, being “so busy” seems to be a badge of honour; a status symbol in our always-on world.

It seems such a strange notion that the humble brag of being time-poor has become a marker for success and a signal of social status.  But that is where we are at with our modern life.  We display our relative importance by promoting how scarce our time is.  We rush about.  We look harried. We get the life-blood of our adrenaline-fuelled existence – caffeine – to go, because we haven’t the time to sit for 5 minutes and drink it.

We do business deals on the phone while driving in defiance of laws that clearly weren’t drafted for busy people in mind.  We run red lights because waiting another 90 seconds is too costly.  We clog intersections because we have stuff to do.  We park where we like because there’s simply no time to stretch the legs with a walk from a block or two away (besides, doesn’t that black Audi look great parked on the footpath?!).

Talking about a scarcity of time is a more nuanced way to display importance that doesn’t go through conspicuous consumption.
It’s implicitly telling you that ‘I am very important, and my human capital is sought after, which is why I’m so busy.’

Stranger still is the notion that those of us who are seemingly of lower social rank because we are not overtly busy actually reinforce this cult of busyness:

In a series of experiments, respondents were asked to rate the social status of a person described as working long hours at work versus one who has a more leisurely lifestyle.
Again and again, participants rated the person who worked longer hours as having more social status, even when the person the researchers asked about was thought to work slowly. In other words, getting the work done fast and having more time for leisure was not something associated with prestige.

Do we all aspire to be hard-pressed, rushed off one’s feet, and time-poor then?  Probably not.  But one way or another we do seek recognition, achievement, and social status, and in our current Western capitalist societies, this looks like busyness.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been doing my own wee social experiment around this.  Each and every time I am asked if I’m “having a busy day“, my reply is a swift “nope“.  It’s a reply which stops the conversation dead in its tracks (sidebar: disagreeing about the weather being too cold/too hot/too wet/too dry also has the same effect on such conversations).

Perhaps I’m supposed to look busy.  I’m a 40-something, self-employed guy who flits around cafes far too frequently (minus the big black Euro car parked on the footpath out front).  But clearly being a bit too relaxed and not admitting to being in a frenzied state of busyness sees me lose all any social status credit I might have at the outset and the conversation quickly falters.

Why is any of this a problem?  Because the constant hustle is hurting people.  Because the constant arms race to see who can work the hardest and the longest (all while signalling on Instagram that you’re living the dream) is driving a good portion of the stress, anxiety, physical and mental health issues we are seeing in our workplaces and society.

The problem is that part of being human – a very large part, in fact – is that you are a social animal.  Social signalling drives social comparison.  When conspicuous consumption – the buying and displaying of things – was the prime social status signal (and perhaps it still is to a degree), people would put themselves into massive amounts of debt just in order to have the right house, in the right street, with the right car parked in the drive, and the kids at the right school, all to display that you had made it.  The burden of that debt, particularly when employment might be precarious, or remuneration borderline, drove anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol use, divorce, suicide, etc.

The display may have changed – swapping owning stuff for being busy (I know very wealthy businessmen/busynessmen who drive very average cars hiding said wealth) – but the outcome is still the same.  Living life at a frenetic pace requires massive amounts of energy, which, beyond a certain point, sees us diverting energy away from such things as relationships and connections, health and wellbeing, and leisure time, and consolidating into being busy.  You will know someone is consolidating their energy when they tell you they haven’t got the time to go to, e.g., the gym, or they are a bit too busy for, e.g., spending time with their partner this weekend.  They are paying for the busyness with the energy they could have used in other areas, but ones which perhaps don’t quite hold the same social status.

Of course, the more people brag about how busy they are, the more common it becomes, and as that happens, particularly in workaholic cultures, status symbols, just like fashions, are likely to change, Bellezza says. “It becomes mainstream,” Bellezza says. “For signals of status to operate, they need to be visible and they need to be costly. And visibility is compromised if everyone else is doing it too.”

Being busy means staying up late to get that last thing done (or to quickly check on email just before bed; or quickly put up that last bit of content on social media for the day).  Being busy also means getting up early, because the early bird gets the worm.  Busy people can’t make stuff happen when they are sleeping.  Besides, they can get by on a few hours sleep each night.

Rental car companies selling the hustle.

Being busy means having no time to sit, relax, and eat a nourishing meal, three times a day.  Skip meals (“I feel better [running on the stress hormones from] fasting/keto”).  Grab a smoothie.  Fuel your day on “high protein” date balls.

Whilst there is no time to sit down for a meal, there is plenty of time to sit down treading the water of your Inbox.  It’s okay though, because that 300km you did on your road bike over the weekend, or the 5am WOD you pulled down at the box while all the slackers sleep eases your guilt of sitting too much.

Being constantly in a rush also turns you into that person we all hate.  That person that demands that everyone moves at their speed.  That person who is entitled to do what they feel want.  That person who kicks up a stink when that sense of entitlement doesn’t work out for them.

I could go on and on about all the behaviours (including those which enhance our deepest and closest connections) which all go south when we are living the cult of busyness.  As a personal trainer, I’ve worked with far too many “busy people” who exhibit all of these same repeating traits.

I’ve worked with the guy whose busyness nearly left him paralysed after the back pain of letting his body go resulted in a spinal fusion which very nearly didn’t work out.

I’ve worked with the guy who spent too much time being too busy to eat well and stay active and who thus became obese and very close to a heart attack.

I’ve worked with the woman who was lonely and whose busy husband had not shown her any (sober) touch or affection in years.

I’ve worked with the guy whose way of unwinding after his 6am-9pm day was to hit the booze.  Hard.

Near the end of my time as a full-time personal trainer, I had the client – a seemingly successful small business owner – become quite emotional and admit that I was one of his few friends (which says a lot as I wasn’t the friendliest trainer at 6 o’clock in the morning).

I recently heard the story of the busy, multi-job, shift-working medic, who presented in his own workplace with signs that his heart wasn’t coping with all his work and endurance training.

The common ground among them all (apart from the dire nature of their physical, mental, and relationship health) was that they all held significant social status from being seen as busy people, and they were all held up as figureheads to aspire to.  Do the work, just like they did, and you could enjoy their wealth and status.

The Cult of Busyness is driving us to work like machines and divert energy away from more meaningful things in life, all for a shallow faux reward – one which often comes at a very large and  unattributed cost.

That tendency to see people who work many hours as more prominent is something that likely influences how many managers see their people. While it’s difficult to do, Bellezza says managers should “shift as much as possible their attention to what people are producing, rather than how long they’re in the office.” Her own experience in past jobs was a reminder of how rarely that happens: Her boss told her all he wanted was to see results — “but then it wasn’t true,” with him telling her “the junior shouldn’t leave before the boss.”

Without a change in the cultures and attitudes highlighted in the quote above, this cult will continue with its pervasiveness for some time to come.  Perhaps a starting point to push back against it, however, is to stop greeting each other with having a busy day?

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