“Busy” has become a brand. We moan, brag, and compete about how busy we are.
Many of us are locked in a state of frantic, racing, cramming, skimming activity from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed.
But instead of making us more productive, busyness often holds us back. Not only can it make us exhausted and stressed, but it also can prevent us from moving our careers forward.
Here’s why we feel so busy and what we can do about it.
We were trained to be busy
Humans evolved in a world of scarcity, where “more” was a good thing. During the Industrial Revolution, “more” became a battleground cry, and the role of managers was to get people to work more efficiently.
When your start your careers, showing a bit more effort and staying longer are easy ways to signal your commitment, which helps you advance.
But there comes a point where the people with whom you’re competing are also playing the “more” game.
We know from corporate strategy that when both parties try and squeeze more and more out of less and less, they end up stagnating.
We use busyness to feel better
When we talk about how busy we are, we’re often looking for acknowledgment.
We’re desperate for someone to say: “Wow, that sounds really awful” or “That sounds really tough” or “Where would the organization be without you?”
Of course, that’s often not what happens. The other person usually tries to out-busy you, which can be deeply unsatisfying.
Another underlying reason we lean on busyness is that we don’t want to fail. We use busyness as an excuse for why we’re not doing the things that matter.
We’re addicted to busyness
Technology has made it easier to feel busy all the time.
We’ve never had a generation in the history of the world that’s had less time alone with their brains. (That’s why people often say they come up with their best ideas in the shower — it’s the only time they’re not with their phones.)
But research has shown that as a whole, we’re not actually busier that we were 50 years ago. We just think we are.
One reason for that is that we feel like we’re always on call.
Studies have shown that when people are on call, their levels of cortisol are nearly as high as when they’re at work. Whether we’re on call for work or for friends or for Facebook, our brain doesn’t distinguish that much.
It’s no surprise that we feel busy and exhausted all the time.
We think we don’t have a choice
A lot of people think there’s nothing they can do about being busy. They think they’re busy because of their workload, their boss, or their organization, and therefore there’s nothing they can do except cope.
This feeling of learned helplessness can have negative consequences.
When people feel that they are busy, they tend to make short-term decisions and not focus on the things that really matter in the long term. They stop investing in their personal development, and they no longer try to think of new ways to approach work.
Busyness also undermines our ability to achieve complex problem solving, creativity, and empathy, skills that the World Economic Forum in Davos has identified as needed for success in the future.
When you’re busy, you become less creative, less imaginative, and less engaged.
What can we do about it?
We must reframe how we think about technology, busyness, and work.
Technology is great. I couldn’t live my life living in Spain, working with clients around the world, without it. But we all must recognize that we have vulnerabilities to it and take simple steps to avoid its temptations.
Put your phone somewhere out of sight, out of mind — or at least turn off the notifications. And get an alarm clock. Phones should never follow us to bedrooms.
When you free your mind and take more control over your life, you can stop feeling trapped by the endless need to do more and more.
This can help you increase the degree of choice you feel in face of the demands of your job. You can spend more time focused on one thing, rather than always switching backwards and forwards between tasks, which will make you less exhausted and more successful.
You also have to let go of the safety net of busyness.
If you feel like you have to demonstrate to everyone how crazy busy you are, it’s probably a sign that the work you’re doing is actually not that interesting.
Instead of bragging about being busy, shift to thinking about impact.
What’s your brand? What do you stand for?
So the next time someone asks you how you’re doing, talk about how you’re genuinely contributing. Don’t be a mindless drone.
Tony Crabbe is the author of Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much.
As told to Kirsten Salyer.