How many times have you asked Karen in HR, “how are you?” only to be answered with, “I’m good, just really busy,” before she darts off to her next meeting without looking you in the eye? Never mind that you didn’t ask Karen about her calendar or how much she has on her plate (which, with the current re-org, is a lot). You know nothing about how Karen is feeling but you definitely get the sense she has no time for you! I’ve found that at work and at home, “busy” is worn as a badge of honor. The busier we are, the more important we feel. But busy doesn’t mean important. Busy just means you are preoccupied. And often it means you’re distracted. It doesn’t mean you are esteemed, fun, smart, worthy, valued, loved, appreciated, excited, or happy. Busy likely means you are not paying attention to the current moment but instead are hustling around in a fog of things you “have” to do.
Far be it for me to live in a glass house, throwing stones at all of the “busy” people rushing about. I too often suffer from the “I-am-very-busy-please-do-not-step-into-my-office” industrial complex. My days are stacked with so many meetings and deadlines that all I want to do is close my door and “work.” But, when I shut the door to my colleagues, I also shut the door to their new ideas, to finding out what projects I should be paying more attention to, and to the delightful fact that we are all human beings on this planet just trying to live. There are times when I do need focus on the task at hand, but when “busy” becomes my default, when, “I have no time for other people” becomes my operating procedure, I know it’s time to re-prioritize and get a little perspective. Here are my top three strategies for avoiding the “busy” trap.
1. Use Your Words
When friends or colleagues describe themselves as “busy,” my soul rolls its eyes. I want to scream, “Yes, yes, me too! But how are YOU?!” Since this is such a pet-peeve of mine, I am very careful not to be a hypocrite. If I want people to open up to me, I must open up to them. When I am asked “how are you?” I try to honestly answer the question without over-sharing.
“I’m excited about a new project but man is it a beast to get it off the ground!”
“I’m a little overwhelmed but trying to manage my work right now, how about you?”
I try to give answers that are real, that are not low-key vent sessions, and that are not a waste of breath for me or the person asking. We are very busy after all, who has time for that?!
2. Some of Your Time is Sacred
We all have bosses. As such, there is always time that is not our own. There is time where we really do need to finish that deck for a major presentation. There are weekends we absolutely need to come into the office for a product launch. But honestly, is it as bad as we often complain? Answer honestly, your boss is not here. If you’re anything like me, the answer is, “no, but I want to nail this.” It’s so easy to slip into a mode where everything is urgent, and every project needs your full attention at all times, because we want to be awesome at our jobs. We want to give 110%. But if the rest of your life is going to hell, if your partner hasn’t seen you in a week and friends start to describe you as “allergic to making plans” are you being 110% of yourself? Not to get dire on you, but this is your life we are talking about.
To protect myself from filling my days and nights with plans, projects, dinners, and meetings, I make sure there is one night a week where I do absolutely nothing. Mondays are not a time to catch up with friends, nor are they a time to stay late at the office. They are a time to do something I am deeply passionate about. Like watch Vanderpump Rules or work on perfecting my turkey meatball recipe. My Outlook (work) and Google (home) calendars are marked OOO and I try to stick to it. If my boss does need me on a Monday, then I just make sure to take another night off that week. I have been doing this for five years and nothing bad has happened to me other than the fact that I’ve become very good at making turkey meatballs.
3. Remind Yourself You are Not a To-Do List, Thank God
I was recently on the phone with one of my best friends when she bemoaned how she had not completed everything on her to-do list.. I’ll also add here that’s she is a mother of two children (both under the age of two, one a newborn), she works at a school surrounded by small children the entire day, and she had recently planned elaborate bachelorettes for two of her best friends. Still, there was something “wrong” with her because she couldn’t complete her own long list of tasks. The issue was not that she was disappointing anyone else, rather, that she could not measure up to the absurdly high standards she set for herself. “You just gave birth to a human being,” I laughed. “That kind of feels like a bigger deal than checking off your to-do list.”
But as someone who lives by to-do lists and “checking things off,” I understood exactly what she was talking about. She was not reaching the impossible bar she set and thus felt unworthy. I also tie my self-worth to what I have accomplished from my to-do list. While it sometimes feels amazing to cross something off, the things I don’t get to become looming reminders of how I am not good enough.
Now, when I self-admonish for what I haven’t yet completed, I repeat to myself, “I am not a to-do list, thank God.” I remind myself that I am not a crumpled post-it at the bottom of my purse that will be thrown away after it’s completed. I am grateful that my life is not a list of tasks, but a set of challenges and opportunities to and adventures to be taken. When I get distracted with all I haven’t done, I remind myself what I have done, which is often quite a lot. Except of course on a Monday night.
For more, buy Tara Schuster’s book: Buy Yourself the F*cking Lilies: and Other Rituals to Fix Your Life from Someone Who has Been There.
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