About ten years ago, I began to notice that one of the more common replies to the question, “How are you?” was not “Fine”, “Good, thanks”, or some other personal sentiment. Instead, more people started replying, “Busy.”

In the graphics industry, everyone is under constant pressure of deadlines – from marketing concept to design to print and order fulfillment. Everyone seems to be getting busier. And more technology has actually increased this pace as it allows us the potential to do even more in the same timeframe. Customers know this and continue to raise expectation levels.

At first I was concerned when people started complaining about being busy, but I found myself feeling the same way and so I started using similar replies. Over time, “Busy” became a way of saying “I’m significant. I’m valued. I’m in demand. I have no time for trivial matters or leisure.” It made me feel important and depending on the inquirer’s response, I could even feel loved and appreciated. Most of us aren’t complaining any more; we’re bragging!

Why is it that in such a health conscious society – especially one that seems to be embracing holistic lifestyles like yoga, meditation, organic foods, and naturopathy – we choose increased activity? In fact, it seems like the more you do – the more you can pack into 24 hours – the more virtuous you appear. I use the word “appear” because that is precisely what busyness is: an appearance. It is surface living, whether it’s for a large group at work, for your neighbourhood, or even simply for the sake of your own self image.

Recently I read some interesting articles by author Greg McKeown (see below for links) that have shown me that I am not alone in my concern about this busyness syndrome.

Here are some interesting points that have helped me understand why so many people are so busy, and some possible alternatives for those genuinely seeking a remedy to the Busyness Syndrome. (Note: “busyness” is defined as the state of being busy, or not idle.)

Busyness might be a temporary phenomenon in our society

A recent Harvard Business Review blog post suggests that our society’s obsession with busy is a “bubble.” Just as other cultural bubbles have become overinflated and then burst (dot-com, real estate, etc.), so will what author Greg McKeown calls “The More Bubble.” In time, he believes, we will come to our senses and free ourselves of the addiction to busy. McKeown’s proposed antidote to the “More” drug that we have become addicted to is actually a growing movement – and what Time magazine calls a “revolution” – labelled Essentialism. Essentialists focus only on the few things that contribute to what is truly valuable in a person’s life. Everything else is simply eliminated.

Prescription #1 – become an Essentialist (read McKeown’s book if you need to)

Busyness might impede one’s capacity to learn or think clearly

This might seem obvious if you are feeling overwhelmed right now, but the more we pack into our schedules, the less capacity we have to function well.

For example, those who work in graphics and marketing are constantly faced with the best way of communicating a particular message. But we’ve become so busy that we don’t even have time to correctly type when we communicate (you’ll likely find errors in this post that I’ve missed!). In fact, because of increased pressure on our schedules, we have moved from handwriting, to typewriting, to computer keyboards, to onscreen keyboards that autocorrect our mistakes and even auto-fill words before we finish typing. The upcoming Apple Watch claims to make communication even easier by simply sending emotive icons and symbols (there’s no room for a keyboard on a watch face!). Research indicates that in moving away from handwriting, we may be sacrificing our ability to learn or at least our ability to think more clearly.

Prescription #2 – practice at least a little handwriting every day.

Busyness does not always result in a fulfilled life

In fact, many find that the exact opposite is true: excessive activity often leads to lack of fulfillment.

Greg McKeown outlines twelve myths that lead to an overactive yet unfulfilled life. His essentialist solution is to think differently about priorities. Apparently, the word “priority” was only pluralized in the 1900s. Instead of thinking “What are my priorities?” and then creating an overwhelming to-do list, how about asking, “What is my priority?” What is my “one thing” and how can I excel in it? What is one task today we really need to focus on?

I love Apple’s approach to creating new products: do a few things very well and only bring them to market when they are ready and when they believe that product will best improve people’s lives. That seems like essentialism to me.

Prescription #3 – try saying no to something every day.

Busyness does not mean people will love you more

As I read through these articles and thought about my own experience of being busy, I realized that at the heart is a desire to feel loved, or at least accepted or appreciated. Love is a fundamental human need that drives our activities. As we learn what is most essential in life, as we relearn simple activities like handwriting, and as we resist the urge to agree to every opportunity that presents itself, we discover that we are still loved and appreciated.

Here’s a simple yet ancient practice to test this final theory: pause for a few moments to think of one situation recently where you felt loved and appreciated. When you have it, say a silent “thank you.” Simply be grateful. I think you will find that the pressures of busyness will fade, you will feel more loved and accepted, and you will have an increased capacity to give yourself to what matters most.

Prescription #4 – find at least one act of love (received or given) to be grateful for every day.

These are just a few thoughts that have helped me – not an exhaustive list, but hey, I can say no to needing to be exhaustive!


Why We Humblebrag About Being Busy – Greg McKeown

12 Myths that Lead to a Busy, Unfulfilling Life – Greg McKeown

Why being too busy makes us feel so good – Brigid Schulte

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