22 Dec 2014
How’ve you been?
Busy, busy, you know. Busy is good, though.
How many times have you had that exchange? I can’t even count. I say it reflexively, as if I’m playing a game of word association. Busy? Good.
When you say this, people just nod. Yup, busy is good. I mean, it’s right there in the word business isn’t it?
Fun fact: busyness and business used to actually be the same word. “Business” meant more of what we now think of as “busyness,” but we started spelling it with a “y” to distinguish from when we meant, you know, work. Still, today, it’s hard not to think of these words as largely synonymous.
Just a few years ago, I wore my busyness like a badge of honor. I was immensely proud of how busy I was, of the long hours I worked. I felt needed. Important. I would compare notes with my friends working in similarly time-consuming professions—it was less about camaraderie and more about patting ourselves on the back. Our ability to push through the long hours and hectic schedules was proof of our worthiness, a sign that we deserved to succeed where others faltered. They just weren’t putting the time in, you know?
We were insufferable, really. Maybe that’s just the nature of being 23, I don’t know, but I’m embarrassed to admit it now. At the time, I was so resistant to the idea that it could be any other way. Sure, maybe other people could get away with being less busy, but not me.
These days, I feel the toll of busyness in a way I just didn’t appreciate then. I feel the struggle to make big, confident, decisions after being worn down by making smaller ones over and over again. I see, belatedly, all the things I’ve let slide, and feel guilty for not being able to focus on it all. I find myself falling into bad habits. Lying in bed at the end of the day, refreshing Twitter and checking my email, unable to resist the pull of new information, and the idea that something might be happening that requires my response.
To be clear: this is both absurd and self-inflicted. With very few exceptions, there is nothing that requires my response at midnight on any given evening. I’m just not that big a deal.
This may just be my line of work (though I suspect it’s not) but often, that sense of busyness comes from constantly reacting. To that new email, or chat message, or Twitter mention. Just always being “on,” waiting for the next fire that needs dousing.
It’s easy to get seduced by the busyness of reacting. Even though it runs you ragged after too long, in the short term it feels so good, like a sugar rush. After the immediate gratification, it dangles a larger promise, ever out of reach: if you’re busy enough, you can actually do all the things. Maybe, if you can do all the things, you really can have it all.
So often though, busyness is just a process measure, and a poor one at that. We kind of assume that if you put enough in, something good will come out. What you’re busy with matters less than how busy you are. We allow ourselves to put aside the question of whether our busyness is leading to something better, or whether it’s just leading to more somethings.
It’s tough to let go of that rush, the importance that can come with that reactive sort of busyness. It’s easy to focus on the times when you jumped in quickly and saved the day. Harder to remember all the times you jumped on something that could’ve waited. Harder still to picture what you could’ve done, the things you could’ve built, if you hadn’t been reacting constantly.
I’ve never been one for resolutions, but my hope for 2015 is to reset and refocus, to let go of the busyness of these last few months, to do more and react less. If anything here sounds familiar, I hope you’ll join me.