My high school music teacher was always sharing ridiculous pieces of advice completely unrelated to his vocation. There was one thing he said that left a serious impression:
If you walk quickly – especially carrying papers— people will think you’re busy, and no one will bother you.
Naturally, like any scientist (I’m not a scientist), I promptly tested this theory. I marched swiftly around campus carrying various collections of paper: folders, binders, assorted documents.
Now, there weren’t any controls in this experiment (I told you I’m not a scientist), but the difference was pretty marked.
Normally, I would be harassed with besties, frenemies, and acquaintances, because… I guess I went to friendly school. But, during the times I walked quickly, and seemed preoccupied with my paperwork, not one person — not even teachers — interrupted me with trivial conversation starters like ‘gosh, it sure is warm out today’.
As a result, I began collecting symptoms of busyness to be pulled out as weapons against unpleasant conversations, uncomfortable situations, and events that threatened my productivity. My arsenal of ammunition consisted entirely of a single badge of busyness.
I proudly entered college with my badge of busyness. It became my excuse for not attending events I didn’t want to attend, and my explanation for avoiding people I didn’t want to talk to. My badge of busyness allowed me focus on my goals without unwanted distractions.
Confronting someone with I don’t want to go or I don’t like spending time with you seemed like an unnecessary and uncomfortable challenge. Why should I make someone uncomfortable by being honest, when I can easily explain how busy I am?
Because I was busy, you see. Like, really, super busy.
It wasn’t until, years later, when I started recording my time that I discovered how much of my perceived busy time was actually being wasted on utter rubbish. Activities that benefited me in no way. Tasks that slowed down my progress towards goals. Meetings without purpose or profit for either party.
I realized I had been wearing that badge of busyness for so long, that I allowed those symptoms to seep in and corrupt my actual productivity. So, I began to deconstruct the badge; by the mere act of tracking my time, I became more mindful of it.
I began choosing meaningful activities that directly contributed to my goals. I spent time with people I cared about, and stopped expanding my acquaintance list. I committed to giving people my undivided attention to show them I valued their time as well.
And then I saw how nobody else was doing the same thing.
“Life is long, if you know how to use it” – Seneca
Clearly, this hit a nerve. I quietly wondered to myself if I was the first to stumble across this novel idea. (We can address my naive arrogance in another article.) Was I the first to find time to be a valuable commodity?
For starters, we’ve been fully aware of how fleeting time is for centuries:
When in Rome
Life’s too short
Live for the day
No day but today
You only live once
We even created an acronym (YOLO), just so we could talk about it more, and probably to save time saying it.
We use this fleeting sense of time to validate or justify decisions we make. That is, of course, when we’re not wearing our badge of busyness.
It’s no secret that, as a society, we’re not using our time effectively or valuably.
Ironically, all the articles that tackle the value of time, while simultaneously pointing out our obsession with busyness are assailed with comments congratulating the author on cutting through the BS with ‘real talk’.
Yet the volume and depth of these pieces seem to indicate nothing is changing. Why?
I felt like I had just discovered the secret to being productive only to find that it’s been common knowledge for millennia, and no one is using it. Humanity: ignoring common knowledge for as long as we’ve been sharing it™️.
Why was no one treating their time like the scarce treasure it is?
Too busy to be productive
There’s a reason there are so many life coaches and motivational speakers popping up to help you get sh*t done. We’re all too busy to be productive.
We’re not working on that app or opening a second store. We’re not even turning off our phones to have lunch with our moms.
The symptoms of busyness have seeped into society and corrupted our idea of productivity.
We’re using our busyness badges merely as status symbols to show how successful and valued we are in our lives, not to create time and space to be productive. And as a result, we’re spending all that YOLO time putting on busy airs, rather than producing anything that contributes to our goals.
I’ve seen this most commonly in my own entrepreneur circle, where ‘hustle’ is everybody’s middle name, and side gigs are for losers (they’re not, side gigs are awesome). This is a group of people who seem to get paid to be busy.
In fact, people seem to adore complaining about how busy they are so much so that I put on my scientist hat again (seriously, I’m not a scientist) to test how far they’d take it.
During a week of business and professional calls with both colleagues and total strangers recommended by so and so, I tried two different tactics. When asked what’s new and/or how my week is going thus far, I responded with:
Ohmygod, it’s been a blast! I went on a gorgeous hike yesterday, and had a lovely catchup brunch with a good friend this morning. And I’m traveling this weekend!
Ohmygod, it’s been pretty crazy. I’ve been super busy with blah, blah, blah, so much so that I’ve been working nights and weekends to get these deadlines met.
To the first, more leisurely response, I received 1 of 3 different responses:
- A moment of stunned silence before the topic was changed
- A redirection of the conversation back to a business topic
- A proclamation of how much they wished they had time for leisure, which led to a discussion of how incredibly busy they were
The second, badge of busyness response always yielded the same result: a competition to determine who was busier.
Who’s the busiest of them all?
Not only are we wearing a badge of busyness to prove our status and worth to others, but we’re also vying for the top spot on the busy leaderboard.
What’s the prize?
A more highly valued status, of course.
This is a variation of what Mark Manson calls the “The Kardashian Rule.”
So, let’s call ours the “The Busy Rule” (I’m too busy to think of better name)
The Busy Rule: The more busy a person appears or claims to be, the more society will overestimate his/her value and success.
By being the most busy in a conversation or at an event, you are proving – by The Busy Rule – that you are more successful and valuable than your peers.
Doesn’t that just make want to vomit a little?
Unsurprisingly, no one wants to lose or be stripped of the badge. Believe me, I tested it (maybe, I’m an honorary scientist?).
Whenever someone began the badge of busyness rant or tried to one-up my busyness, I offered assistance. Something along the lines of this:
Wow, it sounds like you’re really unhappy or overwhelmed with how much you have on your plate. I’d love to help! I bet there’s 3 things on your to-do list for today/this week that you can totally drop. Let’s go through it, shall we?
Many became quite protective of their action item lists in an effort to show me they weren’t interested in decluttering their days. Others became defensive of their work to prove that they were only busy because of how incredibly passionate they were about their business (despite having griped about it just 2 minutes prior).
Most, however, used the offer of assistance as an opportunity to further express their busyness. They’re so busy, they don’t even have time to trim down their to-do list.
You’re still reading this?
Maybe you’re not so busy after all?
Maybe you’ve already deconstructed your own badge of busyness, or never forged one in the first place.
But, if you’re holding onto your badge solely because you don’t know what else to do with it, I’d like to humbly and scientifically propose an alternative.
It’s a 3-parter:
- Practice saying no thanks and I’m not interested
- Talk about your leisure activites when someone asks about your life
- Offer to help folks remove 3 things from their to-do lists 😉
Stating your interests and disinterests from the get-go means you don’t need to keep up the appearance of busyness every time you want to avoid someone or de-prioritize something. Because, let’s be real, that’s what we’re all saying: I’d rather do something else that whatever you’re inviting me to do.
Bonus: it’s a real time saver!
Talking about your leisure life in your professional life teaches your circle that you’re a well-rounded, awesome kind of person. They’ll get the message that you’re not competing for top of the busy leaderboard, and then you can get down to talking about whatever actually matters.
Bonus: it’s also a real time saver!
Maybe my crowd is different from yours, and you’ll have better luck in your offer of assistance. Maybe we can start a de-busy movement. Maybe you’ll start to see exactly who’s making time for you and who’s just too busy.
Originally published at medium.com