Taking Busy Off Its Pedestal

Kathryn Scanland Care for people, Leadership

Thoreau’s Cabin on Walden Pond
Are you busy?

To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!  I say let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen.  ~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

That’s a question I get asked frequently. It’s part of the culture of owning a small business and/or being self-employed. And I do the same; I ask my business friends “Are you busy?” For some reason when I was asked that question recently, it struck me differently somehow. I suddenly thought to myself, is that really how we’ve come to judge our success  Is being busy good and not being busy bad?With just a couple of minutes of research I discovered that I’m certainly not the first person to ask that question. Below are a few quotes I pulled from an article in the NY Times entitled, “Too Busy to Notice that You’re too Busy.”

While those who are overworked and overwhelmed complain ceaselessly, it is often with an undertone of boastfulness; the hidden message is that I’m so busy because I’m so important.

It’s a status symbol.

We avoid dealing with life’s really big issues — death, global warming, AIDS, terrorism — by running from task to task.

It is a kind of high.

Paradoxically, Dr. Hallowell writes in “CrazyBusy,” it is in part the desire for control that has led people to lose it.  “You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets,” he writes. “Many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to every magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks — all in the sense that this is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it’s the magnets that have the control.”

So when and where did I succumb to the idea that “busy” is something to be idolized? To be put on a pedestal?  To define success? Like many things in life, I think it happened slowly and gradually over time and it wasn’t until I had been asked the question for maybe the 100th time that I finally started to wonder if I too was associating busy with success or importance.

As leaders, should we be identifying ourselves with “busy?” Are we imposing that same expectation onto others without even realizing it?  And, is busy really good anyway?

When I look back on my life I don’t think I want to look back and see that I was “busy” and somehow equate that with a legacy I want to leave behind. To change that, I could start by taking “busy” off of the pedestal of importance and no longer ask people “Are you busy?” Maybe I could change that obligatory business networking question to something like, “What have you learned lately?” or “What’s the greatest difference you’ve made or impact you’ve been able to have this year?” or “What have you been working on that’s brought you personal fulfillment?” The list could go on, but beginning to associate my conversation openers with something I value more than busyness seems like a good start.
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Dr. Kathryn Scanland is the president of Greystone Global LLC, a consulting firm focusing on strategic planning, leadership development and organizational design. This post is republished with permission from Tuesday Mornings.
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