When did 'busy' become the new norm? Taking off the busy badge of honour
As a newly minted graduate at my first job at the Leadership Development Centre in 2014-2016 there were many things that stuck out to me about the experience. Meeting the incredible public sector leaders and provider panel of expert facilitators and executive coaches was a real highlight. One such meeting with an executive coach stuck out in my memory and lead to me changing how I thought about my life....
When did 'busy' become the new norm? Taking off the busy badge of honour
It was February 2015 and my colleague and I were meeting with an executive coach to discuss what work we could collaborate on that year. My colleague had not seen her since before the Christmas break and was eager to catch up. The beginning of the conversation went along these lines...
Colleague: "[....] how are you? How's your year starting off? I've heard that things are well in your world and the year has started off crazy busy for you"
Executive coach: "So lovely to see you! [Pauses] Actually... I'm really good. I'm really full/flat out at the moment, not busy... I'm really trying to remove the word 'busy' from my vocabulary as I read a research article that saying 'I'm busy' actually releases a stress hormone in the body, making you feel more stressed..."
Colleague: "Oh... I can believe that! I'm just going to try that: I'm busy... Wow, you're right! Even just saying it I can notice my gut tensing up!"
You get the picture.
"Busyness" is taking a toll on our physical and mental health
It turns out, the article the executive coach was talking about was from the Daily Telegraph (see here). The article profiled psychologist and author Alison Hill who wrote 'Stand Out', about how we can become the "bossy of busy" in a rapidly changing workforce. In essence, Hill says this constant state of "busyness" is taking a toll on our physical and mental health. Hill says:
“Traditional 9 to 5 working hours no longer exists. We’re plugged into our devices 24/7 and drowning in it,” she says.
Hill says technology enables us to have greater flexibility but has come at a cost.
“We’re prioritising what’s got to get done in front of us now over restoring our own energy so that we can get up and do the work again tomorrow,’’ she says.
For evidence about the physiological effects of saying "I'm busy", Hill says:
“When we use ‘busy’ it changes our physiology,” she says. “Our shoulders stoop, voices drop and it is said with a sense of exhaustion. Instead, replacing our language to reflect how the challenges we’re facing are energising us helps … and take breaks when needed.”
For my personal reflections on being plugged into our devices 24/7 and the power of digital detoxes, go here.
The 'Duckpond Experience'
Another thing we discussed in my first job was about being vocal about our experiences - if we were struggling with work it was important to discuss it with our manager and colleagues. For the first few months the work load was fine, but after that 'honeymoon period' had worn thin and the realities and responsibilities had set in, I felt like a duck swimming on a duck pond. On the surface, I looked calm, cool and collected but inside I was struggling with the newfound pressures - like a duck swimming on a lake and peddling its legs furiously under the water. Hill describes my 'duckpond experience' beautifully:
“So many people are experiencing overwhelm at work even when they are outwardly looking like they have got it all together".
Hill also says: “What I’ve come to realise is that everyone believes that there’s someone else who is doing it better than them.” While one of my favourite quotes is "comparison is the thief of joy", I was so caught up in my experience of comparing my experience with the only examples I had around me: colleagues with at least 10 or more years' work experience around me. This is where reframing my experiences and mindfulness practices would have come in handy...
So, how does being 'too busy' effect us?
Richard Jolly (see Fortune article), a London Business School professor and executive coach found that about 95% of managers he had studied over the past 10 years, both in his MBA classes and his coaching practice, suffer from the ailment. What is the ailment? Jolly defined it as the constant need to do more, faster, even when there’s no objective reason to be in such a rush. Eventually, hurry sickness really can make you sick, since it increases the body’s output of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and has been linked with heart disease. Oh...
From the writing of a doctor: Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a 2013 Boston Globe column, she wrote:
In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.
And, for an Australasian perspective, Dr. Libby Weaver talks about 'Rushing Women's Syndrome'. If you haven't watched her TED talk yet, I highly recommend it - watch here.
Okay, so we now know about the potential effects and hazards of being too busy. So, what can we do?
How do we stop being 'busy'? A first step...
Like the executive coach I was meeting for the first time in 2015, it starts with stopping using the word "busy". Instead, you could give 'I've got a really full day/life' (a personal favourite) or 'I've taken on a lot of awesome commitments that fill my days' a try for size. If they fit better, maybe it's time to send 'I'm busy' to the nearest rubbish bin or recycling store (for the environmentally-conscious of us, me included!)
I encourage you to try this yourself and reflect upon what you notice. For me, I noticed that not saying "I'm busy" as my response when I was asked "how are you?" made me feel lighter and helped me feel more empowered and in control of my commitments. I also really started to notice how often people would say 'I'm busy' as a response to being asked 'How are you?'
Another 'Anti-Busy' Strategy: Self-Care and Mindfulness
What else can we do to stop being 'busy'? It may be as simple as prioritising our self-care and taking the time to pause. As cheesy as it sounds, stopping to smell the roses can really help! Hill has some wise words to say, again:
“The top things that I come back to when I notice that I’m getting snagged by ‘overwhelm’ is to prioritise sleep, reach out and ask for help (delegate).
“Self-care is about listening to our inner needs ... sometimes a five-minute break is enough.”
These five-minute breaks (or even just one minute!) are what I'm privileged to teach in the Ovio Mindfulness One classes I run. Taking a moment for oneself - a mindful moment or a pause - in the middle of things, rather than at the end of things, when practised can have noticeable benefits almost immediately. So, rather than thinking 'I'll rest when I've got x, y, z done' (and then not resting because you've still got 'za, zb, zc' that've cropped up on your to-do list), taking a one minute pause before you enter that stressful meeting, go into an interview or go to take an exam can be incredibly beneficial.
P.S. Those mindful moments really come in handy - especially now that Ovio Mindfulness has collaborated with Wellington Chocolate Factory to create chocolate 'mindful moments'. Mindful eating exercises, anyone? :)
A challenge: try removing the busy badge of honour
These "I'm busy" conversations and comments mentioned above are, in my humble opinion, way too common-place. Being busy is even seen as an invisible badge of honour!
I'd like to propose a challenge: try removing the phrase "I'm busy" from your vocabulary for at least the next 2 weeks and notice how it makes you feel.
The next step? Reflecting upon your current and future commitments: how do they make you feel when you think about doing them? Are they essential commitments? And if they are essential commitments, how can you bring more rest and pauses into your day-to-day? This is a conversation/blog for another day - something I've worked through with coaching clients.
For me, since removing the words 'I'm busy' from my vocabulary over two years' ago I've felt lighter and have been more aware of how heavy my to-do list or commitments are at any one time. When asked 'how are you?' or 'are you busy?', my answer is now 'my life is full of awesome commitments'. Try that on for size and see how it fits :)