Busyness: Humblebrag or Opiate?

Over the past several years I’ve noticed a significant upturn in “busyness.” Being “really busy” seems to have become very commonplace, almost a badge of honor. 

When I get requests of any sort, they usually preface the request with “John, I know you are really busy, but….” 

The truth is that I’m not “really busy” and have made a point of remaining “unbusy” for some twenty years now. But why do people assume that I am really busy? I suspect it is because almost everyone they know is super busy.

An NBCNews online article* about an American survey starts off:

Being busy isn’t an excuse or a lament anymore. It’s a sign of status — maybe even a humblebrag…

But when the same researchers tried similar research with Italians, the results flipped. The article concludes:

….Italians considered people with more leisure time to have higher status than those who were working all the time.

So next time you’re feeling crazy busy, think about whether what you’re busy doing is really accomplishing your goals, and if all else fails, consider Italy.

A 2017 article** in The Atlantic begins:

In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen wrote that “conspicuous abstention from labor … becomes the conventional mark of superior pecuniary achievement.” In other words, the richer one gets, the less one works and the more likely one is to try to show off one’s ample leisure time.

For a while, Veblen’s theory held, with few exceptions. But no longer. In the U.S., one can now make a good guess about how rich somebody is based on the long hours they put in at work. The wealthiest American men, on average, work more than those poorer than them.

Recently I engaged with a friend over this matter after she mentioned in detail how tightly scheduled she had been. I asked if she was enjoying the hectic pace of her life. She replied, “I’m bored if I’m not busy, and deeper than that, I start to fall into questioning my worth.  If I’m busy, I feel like I’m contributing and therefore have value.  It becomes a habit.”

I asked her if she felt the habit to be a healthy one – as opposed to a compulsive addiction – and she responded, “Sometimes when I slow down and am just present, I can experience my worth in the way people love me for who I am and not what I do.  And if I slow down even more, worth doesn’t even enter the equation. What arises is a joy of being alive. Meaning comes from experiencing my existence and the existence of all that is around me.”

It would appear my friend has recognized how she had her sense of self-esteem tied to how busy she was and now intends to change – to break the habit of busyness and its related connection to her valuing herself.

While I’m delighted that my friend has recognized her habit and plans to break it, I am keenly aware of the near-epidemic of busyness – particularly here in the U.S. Like many social conventions, it can creep into one’s lifestyle like a burglar in the night. It is insidious and a mass collusion. Once one succumbs to it, and sees all their friends and colleagues doing the same thing, it becomes the new way to be. 

The best way to avoid this epidemic is to stay awake, remain conscious of your actions and propensities for distraction. Be extra-discerning about what is essential to what’s important in your life as opposed to what might be a mere distraction that does nothing more than occupy your attention for a short time.  

*NBCNews article: https://www.nbcnews.com/better/careers/busy-trap-how-keeping-busy-became-status-symbol-n742051 

**The Atlantic article: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/03/busyness-status-symbol/518178/ 

John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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