Are you always busy?

30 Jan 2019 By Susanne Jacobs

Susanne Jacobs wonders what people really mean when they tell colleagues they are 'too busy' at work

My work is focused on providing practical, research-based tools to individuals and leaders that optimise cognitive performance and energy. But, despite each tool taking a matter of moments to apply, the ironic, most cited excuse by those that don’t use them is, ‘I’m too busy, I just don’t have the time’.

Busy is a catch-all term that is thrown out as a shield to deflect the proposition of any additional change or work from inundated minds. 

How do you respond when someone asks you how things are going? Not so long ago the usual reply to this question would have been the nondescript ‘fine’. Now, we all seem to be busy. But busy doing what? I don’t tend to hear ‘I’m really productive’ as an accompaniment to being busy. Busy is a surface word that sits on top of many other meanings depending on what the person is really trying to say. 

When you say busy, could you really be saying ‘I’m needed’? Being busy signals that we are important, useful to our group. We need to be needed. We are social beings and are intrinsically motivated to seek belonging and to be recognised for the value we contribute. This recognition of our significance allows us to remain in the group, to share the resources and spoils from the outcome of collective work. 

Our sense of self-worth is profoundly influenced by the degree to which we perceive how others rank and value us. The psychologist Daniel Goleman wrote: “Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as powerful as those to our very survival. After all, the unconscious equation goes, if we are judged to be undesirable, we may not only be shamed, but suffer complete rejection.”

Could being busy represent your status within the conversation? In corridor interactions between colleagues the competition as to who is busier shimmers through the conversation. We defend our right to be with the badge of busy. We compete on how much work, how many deadlines, just being completely slammed.

But busy does not equate to productive. In fact the well-worn descriptions of overworked and overwhelmed by work leads to quite the opposite. To be stretched to a point at which we are still able to learn and achieve new goals is rewarding, motivating us to focus our effort to keep going. But, to be overstretched, to feel out of control of our workload, triggers our threat circuitry which depletes our resilience and cognitive capacity.

We start to procrastinate and our thinking clouds over. We have all faced SLAs, KPIs and targets that are simply unrealistic and, as a result, are nothing but demotivating. And just to add to our busyness, we face continual change, economic volatility and political uncertainty at every turn. Conversely, under-stretch leads to boredom and frustration, which is equally as stressful and where displaying being busy could cover-up our perceived reduced group significance and concerns that we may be found out, jeopardising our position.

To be pushed beyond our limits every day is not sustainable. It damages our health, diminishes our engagement and makes us busy fools. It’s no wonder that the UK engagement level, that continues to fall, is linked to an estimated £85bn in lost productivity.

So, next time you go to use ‘busy’ when someone asks you how things are, stop for a moment and observe what lies underneath for you. Are you okay? Are you productive or busily drowning?

Susanne Jacobs is an organisational engagement expert and author of Drivers: Creating Intrinsic Motivation and Trust at Work

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