Why you should stop telling people you’re busy all the time

Ask someone at work how their week is going and, more often than not, unless they’re on vacation, they’ll tell you how busy they’ve been. I’m just as bad at doing this. My usual response when someone asks me, ‘how is this week going?’ is, without thinking about it, ‘busy! Busy but good. It’s all good.’ But actually, it’s not good, is it? My saying that I’m busy – whether it’s true or not – is part of the problem that everyone seems to have.

We think that we need to be busy all of the time. We glorify it.

This glorification of busyness happens a lot: we take busyness as a marker of being in demand, being successful. A busy worker is surely one who is good at what they do. We can even become addicted to that feeling of busyness, reinforcing how great it is: remember the little rush of dopamine that you get when you tick something off your to-do list? Or the adrenaline you trigger when you plan out what you’re going to do next. All of this compounds our perceptions that a busy job is a proper job.

But the flip side of this is what all this glorification of busyness does to us: It makes us obsessed with productivity; it makes us feel uncomfortable when we are doing nothing, and our fingers go running to our phones to find a message to respond to or an app to check. Because we may feel that if we are not busy, we are not trying to be perfect and successful. We are somehow just wasting our time.

And if you’re a leader who acts this way, you’re not just having a negative impact on yourself, you’re forcing your team into a culture of busyness, and overwork, and all the bad that brings.

Because: the research suggests that this obsession with being busy to be seen as successful and perfect is making us ill and making others around us ill as they try to play the game we are a part of. Studies by Virtanen at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and quoted in Harvard Business Review have found that overwork leads to significant health issues, including impaired sleep, depression, diabetes, impaired memory, heavy drinking and heart disease.

As leaders, you’re going to suffer – in mind and body – from being too busy and make your team suffer, too.

Your brains and bodies need you to recognise that they need some downtime. They want you to stop and breathe and think and just look. If you need reassurance, it can be that a brain that isn’t being overtaxed is one that has the space to think creative thoughts, solve problems, and heal itself and the body for the next round of busyness to begin.

You’re making yourself and your team more effective if you embrace being less busy.

So if you find yourself justifying to your team why you’re going for a walk, or feeling guilty when you log off to put your child to bed or feeling nervous about having an email free afternoon so you can think and plan, then remember that personal effectiveness only works for the long-term, and we need to look after our bodies and our minds, and to give them some space, to be able to keep going.

So why, if you are managing workers, either formally or informally, is it extra important that you take care of yourself? Because you are, whether you like it or not, a model for behaviour in the company. Those who are junior, when they are trying to work out what is expected of them, will look to the actions of their seniors to work it out. If their seniors are working too hard, and not taking care of themselves, the junior staff will feel the need to do the same. You’re raising the likelihood of the company needing to deal with problems for other workers, not just yourself.

And the absolute WORST thing you can do? Praise anyone for being busy. Don’t do that. Ever.

Busyness is not a badge of honour, it’s a sign of overwork and all the problems that come with that.

Responsible leaders don’t build a culture of busyness by praising it.

To be personally effective, you need to prioritise what’s important and fight the need to be busy all the time. It’s only by rejecting unnecessary busyness and giving your body and mind a chance to recharge that you’ll be personally effective and be able to bring your team along with you.

This is the latest in a series of articles I am writing about personal effectiveness. To read previous articles, visit my LinkedIn page.


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