‘I’m busy,’ signals you don’t have room for friends; be specific or cut back your calendar
I recently asked a friend I haven’t seen in months if she wanted to get together and catch up. I envisioned us gabbing over cocktails at the new Vietnamese restaurant in our neighbourhood. Or maybe I could fix her dinner.
Her reply: “Sure. Why don’t you stop by for 45 minutes to an hour on Monday night around 8:30.”
Gee, thanks. But are you sure you can spare the time?
Yes, we’re legitimately busy. We work more than ever — many of us when we’re not even in the office. We’ve involved parents. Technology soaks up much of the rest of our time. Research even shows we have an idleness aversion — people who are busy are happier than people who are idle, even when they were forced to be busy.
Here’s the problem: 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.”
The statement “I’m busy” has long been a code — for “I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “life is chaotic.” Our culture discourages people, especially men, from unloading their mood or troubles on others, so we claim to be busy to avoid a discussion. 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.
But 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.”
In yet-unpublished research, Ann Burnett, a professor of communication at North Dakota State, analysed 50 family holiday letters written from 2000 to 2016 — the ones people send out at the end of the year — and found that bragging about busyness was the second-most-common type of brag. “Once again, this year has been busier than ever,” was a typical statement.
People bragged about being busy even more than they bragged about their achievements. (The most-common type of brag in the letters was pride of ownership: “We have a new granddaughter. She’s adorable and a good sleeper.”)
Why are we so proud of being busy? We think people will think that we’re successful and important and interesting. And we’re right: Studies by researchers from Columbia Business School, Georgetown University and Harvard Business School, featured in the Harvard Business Review in December 2016, found that busier people are perceived as having a high status. “We place a high value on hard work and rewarding effort, which is really rewarding activity and not necessarily achievement,” says Woody Woodward, an organisational psychologist in New York City.
We also use busy as an excuse when we drop the ball or simply don’t want to be bothered. This became perfectly clear to me recently when I told my niece, Sophia, I missed her and asked why she hadn’t called me for a week — we typically talk every day — and she responded with a flip (you guessed it): “I was busy.” She’s five.
So what do we do?
‘“I’m busy” has long been a code —for “I’m feeling overwhelmed” or “life is chaotic.”’
Banish the word. “Never use ‘busy’ as a positive,” says William J. Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. It has taken on a connotation of virtue, and that is false and misleading, he says.
Instead, be specific. When people ask how you are, be more exact: “My life is intense.” “I am a little behind.” “I’m feeling frustrated at the moment.”
If you’re overwhelmed, say so. Explain if you’re not comfortable talking about what’s going on in your life. This will help the other person understand that the issue isn’t that he or she isn’t important but rather that you are struggling to hang on right now.
Schedule less, knowing that something will always pop up. “It’s the events and tasks on our schedule that squeeze out time for our family and friends,” says Dr Doherty. He suggests pruning your commitments to make time for friends and family.
Drop the shame. We tend to believe that busy is the opposite of lazy, which we see as bad. That is a myth, says Dr Burnett.
“At the end of your life, do you want your tombstone to say: “He was busy”? she says.
The Wall Street Journal