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Crazy Busy: The Unfortunate New Norm

Apr 22, 2019

(Not verbatim) recap of a conversation I overheard the other day while waiting in line:

Person A: How’s work these days?

 Person B: Crazy busy. We’ve got this huge project going on that’s just keeping everybody buried. You?

Person A: Yah. Same here. It’s just 24/7 lately.

Crazy Busy as Status Symbol

As I’ve been traveling my own personal journey to reduce the mouse-on-a-wheel feeling and find more stillness and open space in my days, I’ve been noticing how much adult conversation revolves around exchanging stories of busyness. You could replace the snippet above with talk about overscheduled family life, incessant house projects, never fully disconnecting from work in the evenings and weekends, too many social commitments or any other component of the Busy Trap.

I recently heard a phrase: “busyness as status symbol”. I was curious …

When did crazy busy become the norm? Why are we all talking about being so busy almost with an air of pride? Is busyness as a status symbol really a thing?

So alongside my own inner work, I’ve done a little research to better understand what’s up with this phenomenon. Here’s what I’ve concluded:

Conclusion #1: Yep, this is really a thing. A complicated, multi-faceted, pervasive thing.

An article in the Journal of Consumer Research concludes that, in the United States, “busyness and overwork, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, have become a status symbol”. The authors suggest this is so because of the perception that busy individuals possess desired “human capital characteristics” such as competence and ambition, leading them to be viewed as scarce and in demand. It’s even suggested that just signaling your busyness in conversation (even if you’re not really that busy) increases the perception by others that you must be extra valuable.

Outside of busyness as a status symbol, there are other reasons for our collective over-doing.

Technology, of course, with all of its opportunities for checking and connecting and chatting and searching and compulsive doing. Tune in closely to your own behaviors or those of your friends or colleagues and really soak in the insanity of it all. If you’re old enough to remember life before smart phones, text messages, and social media, just consider how different – and possibly more relaxed – your life was then. A 2017 report suggests the average smart phone user does something with their phone almost 80 times per day, which works out to roughly once every 12 minutes. I need to say that again. ONCE EVERY 12 MINUTES!! If not proactively managed, this technology overload creates constant activity, interrupts potential for the flow state and furthers the feeling of busyness, sometimes without any actual productivity or significant meaning attached to it.

And lastly in my incomplete list of reasons for the Crazy Busy phenomenon is something called Affluenza, an originally made-up word that now actually resides in the dictionary and effectively means the relentless pursuit of more. More money. More things. As a society, we have more material possessions than any generation before us without much to show for it except an incredible amount of collective debt and a silly number of storage units. All these things require money to buy and re-buy, which requires more work or harder work to ensure the money keeps coming in, and takes precious time to organize, fix, figure out, store, clean and take care of. Check out this old but entertaining short quiz about Affluenza to be amazed at just how excessive our consumerism has gotten. 

Conclusion #2: It hasn’t always been this way – and isn’t this way in most parts of the world.

Crazy busy is a relatively new phenomenon. Even in Western society where busyness now runs rampant, even just a few decades ago, things were reversed. People who had extra leisure time were viewed as having “made it”. Only as our work-a-holism has reached a fever pitch and more jobs have gravitated to intellectual contributions rather than physical ones has this new “Ugh, I’m so busy” thing really taken hold. In most societies for most of history, leisure time has been perceived as valuable and a sign of living well. Although we may say now that we value leisure time, our actions often don’t line up with that.

Research suggests that this busyness phenomenon is also quite culturally specific. This same Journal of Consumer Research study compared the views and habits of Americans with those of Italians and the results were striking in their difference. In Italy, a country in which leisure time is viewed as equally or perhaps even more important than work, it seems the opposite of Crazy Busy is the norm - to the point where business grinds almost to a halt during the months of July and August. That’s the other end of the spectrum and not what I’m suggesting is ideal. But perhaps we could look to other countries like Denmark and Switzerland for a middle ground where work and responsibilities are better balanced with play and downtime. As Americans, we have the distinct (and dubious?) honor of being the busiest people on Earth - and we wear our workaholic badges with pride.

Conclusion #3: Crazy busy is not good for health or happiness. 

At the peak of my crazy busy life a while back, before I really started to proactively slow down and simplify, I remember feeling a deep intuitive sense that I would literally be taking years off the end of my life if I didn’t find a way to reduce the inner stress and anxiety that came with hurrying, cramming and being uber-productive. I was also acutely aware that I was missing many opportunities to be present and genuinely connect with people – the very thing I want most in life. My To Do list had become my most pressing wellbeing issue.

I don’t think I’m alone. 

Books like Shauna Niequist’s Present Over Perfect offer stories of frazzled, exhausted, doing-it-all adults reckoning with the damaging effects of the Busy Trap and learning to, in Shauna’s words, “leave behind frantic for a simpler, more soulful way of living.” I think Shauna’s book has been so popular in part because she’s expressing an experience that many, many Americans can relate to – feeling frazzled and hurried, running through the days in a blur, collapsing exhausted into bed only to get not enough sleep and wake up to do it all over again. 

Despite all this busyness, we are not, as a whole, happier or healthier. According to the World Happiness Report, which offers aggregate data on self-reported happiness and sense of wellbeing, over the last half-decade, America has hovered somewhere between 11th and 17th on the list of happiest countries. Certainly this ranking could be worse but it’s definitely an indicator that being the most productive country in the world does not equate to being the best off. Other reports suggest our collective happiness peaked in the 1950s and has decreased slightly since then.

Conclusion #4: It doesn’t have to be this way.

That’s the good news.

The bad news, if you want to think about it that way, is that if you’re caught in the Busy Trap and want to get out, it’s unlikely to be a quick fix. The solution probably does not lie in another organize-y smart phone App or a time management class. Like most important and meaningful changes that we humans make, slowing down and simplifying is complex and requires an inside-out approach.

If you're feeling the need to get off the mouse wheel - or you're working with clients or employees who want to - here’s a start:

Consider how your busyness habits line up with your life’s purpose and greatest values.

 If you’re not clear on your personal purpose and most important life values, this is essential. Without this clarity, to use Vic Strecher’s analogy, you’re like a sailboat without a rudder on a windy day: zig-zagging here and there, completely at the mercy of the wind, moving a lot but unlikely to reach wherever it is you really want to go in life.

One part of my own personal purpose statement (there are two pieces to mine) has to do with being as present and authentic in as many moments of my life as I can. At the end, if I can look back on my life and know that I was really “there” with people a lot of the time, in the moment, as my true self, willing to show up and be vulnerable … then, for me, that will be a life well lived. I do not want to look back on my life and see that my greatest contribution was the ability to get a lot of stuff done. As I examined my own life in recent years, I saw and felt clearly the disconnect between what I wanted (meaning and connection) with what I was doing (prioritizing doing over being). This has been a powerful call to action for me.

Dig deep and be courageous.

The word courage often brings to mind obvious and external acts of bravery like confronting a bully or speaking in front of a crowd when it fills you with heart-pounding anxiety. But courage comes in less obvious ways, too, like crafting and honoring new boundaries with technology and work hours, asking for help, or deciding you’ll no longer be driven by concerns about what people think of you. To enact intentions like this is courageous because it requires that we identify and confront the fears about what might happen when we actually do. And that requires that we dig deeper than the surface level behaviors.

In their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, Harvard Researchers Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey share an understanding of change that illustrates why we often don’t do what we know is in our best interest, even when we really want to. Kegan and Lahey’s work suggests that, alongside our desire to change behaviors that will improve our lives, we always have “hidden competing commitments” that keep us stuck in the same old patterns. These hidden competing commitments usually win out over time because they are rooted in powerful and ingrained assumptions, fears and worries we may not even be consciously aware of.

For example, let’s say you recognize that your life would feel less busy if you stopped “checking in” on work in the evenings and weekends and you’d like to enact new boundaries around working hours and technological connectedness. It could be tempting to simply make resolutions around these new choices, announce your intentions to your loved ones and colleagues, and hope that sheer determination and desire will get you there. But that’s unlikely to do the trick unless you identify and confront the inner stuff that has kept you stuck in those old busy patterns.

So you need to peel back the layers a bit and pinpoint what fears or worries you have about what will happen if you enact these boundaries and then confront those (often irrational or exaggerated) concerns.

Are you worried that perhaps your professional relevance or value will decrease if you do? Concerned that other people might think less of you? Certain that the job won’t get done right unless you’re managing it every step of the way? Hesitant to give up a self-image as the competent, reliable achiever? 

One simple but powerful way to dig more deeply is to find a few minutes in a private space, breathe quietly to calm and center, and ask yourself one or more questions, and then tune in to really hear whatever bubbles up. As a starting point, you could ask yourself something like: “What’s going on here?” or “What’s my busyness/stress/overload/anxiety/work-a-holism really about?” or “What am I afraid of?”

Whatever answers arise are perfectly fine– no judgment needed. Your internal critic won’t be helpful in resolving this challenge. But seeing the truth objectively is important because you can only cultivate lasting solutions when you know the real problems you’re trying to solve.

Behaviors are always a downstream consequence of beliefs, thoughts, and feelings; crazy busy is no exception. Only once we address and find ways to refute, confront or soothe our fears about the possible consequences of slowing down and simplifying, will we be able to get out – and stay out – of the Busy Trap. 

It has to be important to you - near the top of your priority list. And you have to do the inner work. But I can tell you from personal experience: it's definitely worth the effort ... and definitely wonderful.

I’d love to know … what keeps you in Crazy Busy mode? Or what used to? And how did you get out? 

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