Why We Have To Stop Being The Other "B" Word — Busy!

"Can't, sorry. I'm..."

"Can't, sorry. I'm..."

Whether you’re complaining about the burdens of working long hours or humblebragging about how in-demand you are, it’s time to shift our focus from how much time we don’t have to how we enjoy the precious time we do have.

It’s the other “B-word.” You know it — that word that bubbles up when you run into a colleague or catch up with a friend you haven’t seen since she decided to go back to grad school. “How are you?” you ask, and before you finish the question, the synonyms start pouring out. “I’m slammed, everything’s been crazy, my life is hectic, I’ve been so stressed out,” they pant, as if they just got done running the marathon that is their daily life. Even if we all hate it when others tell us how busy they are, we will become that person if we miss an appointment or a deadline, we show up late for brunch, or we just forget to call: “Sorry, I was busy.”

I’m not here to tell you you’re not busy, because at least statistically, you are. Not only does research show that Americans work harder and longer than any other nation, but we also spend a disproportionate amount of time getting to our jobs. Two of the top five cities with the longest commutes in the world are in the United States, and workers spend roughly a week stuck in traffic every year just getting to their jobs. When it comes to work-life balance, those realities set Americans up to fail...but do we do ourselves any favors by spending our precious little free time talking about how slammed we are?

Whether you’re complaining about the burdens of working long hours or humblebragging about how in-demand you are, it’s time to shift our focus from how much time we don’t have to how we enjoy the precious time we do have. This year, I decided to ban the word busy from my vocabulary and replace it with explanations that are more descriptive. Here's how to start: Instead of saying “I’m busy” when a friend invites you to a party, just thank them and say you have other plans. Or even better: You can be up-front about the fact that maybe you just don’t want to do something that night. Maybe you just want to stay in that night and relax. Maybe we all aren’t actually doing anything at all — and that’s actually a great thing. Let’s brag about that instead.

Why do we value busyness? As the Guardian’s Oliver Burkeman argues, it’s a product of a culture where we’re overworked even when we’re not working. “The real culprit is a socioeconomic system that relentlessly instrumentalizes everyone, forcing us to become productivity machines, valued by our output alone,” he writes. And in that system — which tells us that time itself is money — we fill our schedules not only be useful but to derive our self-worth. The New York Times’ Tim Kreider argues that we are busy, therefore we are: “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”

There’s no doubt that Americans love working — or are in a complicated relationship with it. As a population, Americans fail to take 169 million vacation days each year — and in 2014, 40% of workers didn’t take a single day off for R&R. According to a report from Al-Jazeera, that problem of “unused vacation time is at a 40-year high.” There are a number of reasons that workers might not utilize the PTO they’ve earned; some feel that they “can’t” leave because no one would be able to perform their job in their absence, while others worry that taking time off could hurt their chances of a promotion.  

To address those issues, we need to further a culture that values leisure over labor. While Americans take pleasure from their ability to be efficient, one of my favorite phrases comes from Italy: “la dolce far niente.” The term translates to the sweetness of doing nothing, and I’ve previously argued that the term is a reminder that it’s OK to lean out in your profession — and balance your ambition with the rest of your life. But I think the greater message is how we center our lives: do we see ourselves first as worker robots or beings whose lives are motivated by seeking pleasure and fulfillment?

That might sound like a new-age concept, but think about it this way: When you meet someone at a party, how do they introduce themselves? Do they talk about their interests or what they want to be in life? Do they say, “Hello, my name is Nora. I love smooth jazz and I dream of being an architect someday?” No, they say, “Hi, I’m Mitch and I work in an office.” It seems silly to casually introduce yourself as a Kenny G fan, but this example touches upon all the things we don’t say when we put our productivity, our work, and our busy busy schedule first.

As Mindy Kaling argued in Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, the biggest problem with that dreaded “B-word” is that it doesn’t actually tell you much about someone’s life — except that they have one. “I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway,” Kaling argued. ”Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, ‘Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.’” She’s right: The busy trap doesn’t open up conversation. It closes it off from anything but our passive acknowledgement, and it means we end up talking about basically nothing at all.

Instead of telling people how busy I am, I’ve begun to force myself to do the opposite — holding myself accountable to being less stressed out by telling people about the times when I’m least busy. Instead of “I stayed up late working on an article and didn’t get much sleep,” I highlight the rewards of the hard work I do put in by discussing the leisure time we all say we want. If someone were to ask me what I did this weekend, I would say, “Not too much. I got some reading done, saw friends, and went out to a movie. It was great.” If someone asked about my week, I would say that I don’t have many plans yet — and isn’t that amazing?

I’m sure someone could look at my calendar — which has some appointments lined up here and there and writing deadlines I’m brushing up against — and say it’s packed, but I don’t think it is. To me, it looks like my life. People always use the phrase “can’t complain” when you ask them how things are going, but the busy trap proves that’s not true: No matter what’s going on, people can find something to kvetch about — and as Tim Kreider shows, there’s a distinct social incentive to that. But if we don’t stop constantly reminding everyone — and ourselves — how harried we all are, it’s our lives that are going to end up the real “B-word.”

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