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Breaking the “cult of busy”

When’s the last time you told someone you were busy? If you’re like most working people it’s probably been within the last week, if not days, or hours.

The cultural norm to answer the question, “How are you?” with “Busy!” is not new but seems like it’s grown exponentially in recent years.

Sometimes it’s the truth! Life and work can be busy! But I’ve noticed that this answer, especially when seeing or reconnecting with someone after a bit of time can act as a dismissal, a roadblock in the path to actually communicating. Rather than explaining what is going on in our lives or at work we opt out. Proclaiming how busy we are creates a barrier in conversation.

And since conversations are part of our lives as social creatures, when we place blocks in them we limit how deep we’ll experience our social world. And while not everyone needs to know everything about our lives and work, social support has been proven time and time again to be critical to our success in, well, existence.

When we dismiss the opportunity to actually share what we’re experiencing, perhaps that we’re overwhelmed by or struggling with something, we dismiss the opportunity for connection, for sharing, and for getting to know ourselves better by making sense of what we’re feeling.

Yes, perhaps we are just too busy and going into all of that would require the firing of neurons that we’d rather reserve for something else. But at the same time, why? What’s the rub with letting someone know how we *actually* are?

When I coach founders and executives I don’t have a roadmap or an agenda for the conversation. We set goals and areas that we’ll focus on when we kick off then they bring topics to each session that we work on, issues we make sense of together, or friction points to work through. That said, I’ve been noticing lately that my bias, has been to slooooooow things down.

I have a unique interaction with leaders and an opportunity to ask them to expand on “busy.” The responses are astounding.

But it’s hard. It can be unnerving. And certainly not always natural to the current state of modern work culture.

And it’s something I experience personally too.

Just the other week, I bumped into an acquaintance I hadn’t spoken with in a while. As these run-ins go, this person asked me how I was. I could feel the jolt of the knee jerk response I was so used to giving. I so badly wanted to say, “Busy!”

But I tried something new.

I told this person, “Work has been demanding.” I then added, “Really demanding.”

I didn’t expand on it, there wasn’t a need to. But I could feel that my ever so slightly more detailed response was met with warmth.

This person said with a slower, more relaxed and open tone, “Yeah, me too.”

And since we’re not all that close, we then quickly agreed “But, like, good demanding.” After a bit more chatter we said our goodbyes and moved on with life.

That interaction stayed with me.

Sure I was busy but that wasn’t really what was going on.

When we’re asked how we “are doing” we’re being asked about out state of being. Being busy can feel static, limiting. When we’re asked how we are doing the more human way to respond is to describe our state with emotion and feeling. This is what we also biologically crave as listeners. In fact, research dating back to the end of the 19th century on the forgetting curve, or how much and what we retain from conversations, lectures, and presentations, reveals that while we only retain a fraction of what is shared with us, what we do remember is strongly linked to emotion and mood for many.

Saying we’ve been busy – a static, almost robotic, dismissive answer doesn’t play into our human need for connection. Plus also it’s just scratching the surface of what and how we actually are doing. Sharing the qualities of that busyness; that it’s been demanding, overwhelming, mind-numbing even – those things evoke emotion. They create the opportunity for connection and exploration of mood; that’s how humans connect.

So the next time you’re busy get curious about what that busyness is. Are you tired? Irritable? Overworked or overwhelmed? Unhappy? Happy? Of course you might just be plain busy, but the act of considering what at busyness is like can help you reconnect to your humanness and maybe see it a bit differently.