Is your life half-full or half-empty? Are you so overcommitted that you do not have any time left even for a casual encounter? Or are you feigning busyness because you want people to think that you are all business?
For many of us being busy has become the go-to excuse for avoiding other people. So says Elizabeth Bernstein in her Wall Street Journal column.
People use “I’m too busy” as a polite demurral, but Bernstein notes that when someone says he is too busy to spend time with you or even to chat he is saying that you are inconsequential. It is rude.
I would emphasize the point. Most often we try to understand “I’m too busy” in terms of what the person means to say. Rarely do we examine what it signifies to the listener.
Most of us aren't too busy to make time for our loved ones—to return a text or phone call or free up time for satisfying chat. And yet that is the impression we’re giving. When we tell someone we’re too busy to give them more than a few moments of our attention—too busy for a call or a meal or a visit—what they hear is this: “I am too busy for you. You don’t matter enough to me.”
It’s fair to say that some people really are overcommitted. They might have the time to see you next Tuesday but they are terrified that they might have to cancel. Thus, they opt out of appointments.
The statement “I’m busy” has long been a code—for “I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “life is chaotic.”
In truth, some people’s lives are chaotic. Some people really are overwhelmed. Bernstein offers the case of a personal friend who is so overwhelmed by work and business trips that she neglects her children:
When I asked my friend who barely had an hour to spare what was going on, she explained that she felt guilty about taking more time away from her children, given her looming work deadline and upcoming business trip.
We do not know any more about her situation, so we cannot comment. And yet, the woman seems to have become prey to the notion that women can have it all and can do it all, can be all things to all people at all times and in all places. She has gotten to the point where she feels so badly about neglecting her children that she cannot make time for a friend.
On other side of the spectrum Bernstein finds people who brag about being busy because they believe it to be a sign of status. For my part I suspect that people who claim to be the busiest are really signaling their lower status. People of high status maintain good relations with all sorts of human beings. They never opt out of an appointment and never fail to return a message. They never try to excuse their failings because they are too busy.
… now we’re busy bragging about being busy—in conversations, texts and emails, Twitter handles, such as “Busy Mom,” and Facebook posts, such as “After being super busy all day this beautiful sunset slowed me down.”
Why are we so proud of being busy? We think people will think that we’re successful and important and interesting.
Surely, this is true. Yet, it shows that we are not as successful, important or interesting as we think. Someone who is constantly in a frenzy about tasks that must be completed yesterday is not all that important. Someone who never takes time to calm his frazzled nerves, is headed for a meltdown. After all, even God took a day off.
We seem to want to show people that we are really trying, that we are really working hard. It shows that we live in a culture that rewards people for effort, not for achievement, that values high self-esteem rather than real accomplishment.
Bernstein quotes an organizational psychologist:
“We place a high value on hard work and rewarding effort, which is really rewarding activity and not necessarily achievement,” says Woody Woodward, an organizational psychologist in New York City.
One can be very busy doing nothing. One can be very busy spinning one’s wheels. One can maintain constant activity because one does not know how to work effectively. We even have the expression “busy work” to describe activity that makes us look like we are doing something constructive when we are effectively not doing anything at all.