Busy, busy, busy: Time to give this most overworked word a rest

Busyness is so mixed up with self-esteem, we dare not admit to a moment of idleness

Why has busyness become the default topic of discussion for those of us fortunate enough to still engage in work-related encounters? Why does it always manage to make an appearance whenever work is referenced or mentioned or even hinted at obliquely?

You must be busy?
Things are busy?
It's a busy time of the year?

We all do it. It’s become the socially acceptable way of showing interest in what a person does day-to-day. An easy “in”. The conversation may well stray into other areas, but all within the overriding, all-consuming occupation of being busy.

So busy.


Whatever your work may be, the assumption is you are busy doing it.

But we need to be careful here. It’s got to the point where busyness has become so linked with the very concept of work that it’s strayed into the areas of importance and relevance and has got itself all mixed up with self-esteem.

The busyness conversation effectively sets in motion a competition and it's a competition that none of us are going to win

And that's not to say that people aren't busy.
Or that it's bad to be busy.
Busyness can be great.
It can be energising.
Even fun.

It’s the societal expectation of constant, unrelenting busyness that’s the problem here.

The thing is, if we go around assuming that everyone is continually swamped by their own work “to-do” list and bestowing some kind of gravitas on that list, then clearly this inventory of tasks to be done will develop a life of its own.

It will grow.
Either consciously or unconsciously.

Because if it doesn’t, then clearly the owner of that list is either lazy or incompetent, or both.

Bouncing around

And, without knowing why or how, we will find ourselves bouncing around on that out-of-control train, hurtling towards somewhere, anywhere, presumably the grave.

The busyness conversation effectively sets in motion a competition and it’s a competition that none of us are going to win.

We’ve managed to create a society where nobody in their right mind would have the courage, the boldness, to say: “Actually, it’s kind of quiet at the moment. I’m getting the chance to read up on issues and file and generally tidy up my desktop.”

Confusion would reign.

But, of course, if we were all to adopt this approach, then things might change. In the same way that list will grow due to societal expectations, maybe it will likewise diminish if those expectations were to change. The train might actually slow down. We might even sit back and enjoy the view from time to time.

And we can set all this in motion at a very young age.

After all, we’ve managed to pass the whole busyness obsession on to upcoming generations. In pre-Covid times, during school holidays, parents of young children were under immense pressure to use all means available to keep them busy. These were, of course, the same kids who had a year-round calendar of after-school activities and training sessions and weekend matches and performance workshops that would have left the hardiest of grown-ups slumped in the shade.

Party circuit

And that’s without even taking into account the heady party circuit favoured by this age group. A party circuit that any self-respecting 21-year-old would have given their right arm for.

But surely the gradual erosion of long, endless, nondescript days should be noted with concern. After all, by cramming so much into 24 hours, are we genuinely preparing these youngsters for life? Is time truly the enemy? Must its sagging body be trampled upon again and again?

A teacher in a primary school told me about a reward system she’d developed for her class. As affirmation of positive behaviour, pupils could decamp to the back of the room for five to 10 minutes.

There was no obligation to do anything. They could read a book if they liked but equally they could just sit and be, and maybe look out the window.

It took a while to get going, the teacher explained, but in her 10 years of teaching she’d never come up with a more successful strategy.

The children loved it.

Maybe we should incorporate something like this into those work-related conversations.

The next time we feel the urge to jump into the fray and engage the B-word, why not abandon the whole business and opt for something radical instead?

Read up on anything interesting recently?
Finished any filing in the past few days?
Stared out any windows of late?

And, smiling and unapologetic, on screen or in person, await a response.