The Cult of Busyness: What It Is and How to Escape It

Do you typically answer the question “How are you?” with some variation of “super busy”? Do you send more work emails between midnight and 3 a.m. than you do between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.? Are you always late to meetings?

If you answered yes to these questions, you’ve probably been indoctrinated into the cult of busyness. It’s not really about how busy you are – it’s about what that busyness signals to other people. Being busy says you’re super important at your workplace, and super popular in your social life. And it’s not just a subjective impression; new research from the Harvard Business Review charts this phenomenon, concluding that busyness has replaced “conspicuous consumption [of luxury goods] as a public marker for our worth.”

Like all good indoctrinations, it’s become second nature, with the need to tout our busyness an almost-involuntary impulse these days. And while there’s nothing wrong with hard work – it built this country, after all – we know that working crazy hours is unhealthy in all sorts of ways, increasing the risks of everything from heart disease to depression while actually hurting productivity. And the rise of busyness as a status symbol just keeps upping the ante.

“Working crazy hours is unhealthy in all sorts of ways … and the rise of busyness as a status symbol just keeps upping the ante.”

France is trying to dismantle the cult of busyness by imposing laws that give workers the legal right to ignore after-hours emails. But you can self-regulate by adopting a few new habits that help you disconnect when you can – and downplay your busyness when you can’t.

  1. Take stock: Are you doing things that scream “I’m so busy!” to signal status, or because you really don’t have enough time? In either case, something’s got to give. Track how you spend your time using a tool like My Hours and get a better handle on how productive (or how brainwashed) you are.
  2. Unplug: Getting your email on your phone is super convenient, but it’s also super tempting to always check – and always answer – your emails. Turn off email notifications as part of your daily shutting-down routine to remove that temptation. Just make sure your peeps know that if they really need you, they should call or text.
  3. Be prompt: If you’re habitually late to meetings, it could be poor time-management skills – or it could be that, in your cult-of-busyness mindset, lateness signals busyness.  You may think all you’re saying is that you wish you could be in two places at once, but – darn the space-time continuum – you just can’t. What people may be hearing, however, is that you think your time is more important than theirs. Make punctuality a priority – and use your meeting-notice reminder system or phone alerts to help.
  4. Save to draft: Some people are honestly more productive in the wee hours of the morning. But if it’s 2 a.m., you might be sending more than email – you might be sending a message that your busyness and importance requires you to work this much. If you have to work after hours, try composing your emails and saving them to the draft folder – then send them first thing in the morning.
  5. Focus outward: When someone asks how you are, respond with a vague (and short) but positive answer – and then ask pointed questions about how they are. You’ll practice your active listening skills, you’ll take the pressure off yourself to humblebrag about your stress level, and you may just start a collective jump off the busyness bandwagon.

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Tags: Culture, Wellness

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