Performing Busy

It's rarely necessary to be quite as busy as we are. Image: Pixabay.

It's rarely necessary to be quite as busy as we are. Image: Pixabay.

I have to wonder why we routinely allow “being busy” to consume us.

Dear Busy Bees,

We get it! You’re busy. You probably feel like you’re busier than anyone around you, and you’re definitely not shy about sharing it.

In a culture literally driven by productivity, a sense of busyness seems like a prerequisite to being your most productive self.

You may even feel a sense of compulsion or obligation to over-commit — particularly if you’re inclined to serve or help others. These days, many of us willingly succumb to the expectation of being overworked, and fully embrace this expectation in our interactions and engagements.

Living in a culture that forcefully promotes busyness most certainly perpetuates the feeling that we’re never doing enough. It’s competitive and contagious.

Some of us thrive off of “performing busy.” I borrow this line of thinking loosely from Judith Butler’s conceptualization of gender and gender performativity in Gender Trouble.

While they’re not entirely the same (and here I’m presenting a naïve interpretation), I think that in many ways, we have dichotomized “busy” similarly to how some people view gender as a binary: Either you’re “busy” or you’re “not busy” — and many of us associate “not busy” with “not doing enough,” a sense of shame, and other negative affiliations.

This phenomenon allows us to produce, reproduce, and associate certain behaviors with how busyness is enacted in daily life. When I say busyness is performative or that someone “performs busy,” I am suggesting that we have created, and subscribed to, a cultural script and set of norms about what busyness looks like and how it is fulfilled.

When we allow “busy” to be a part of how we identify, we assume particular expectations and roles — consciously or not.

Think about it! If you’ve ever asked your friend how they’re doing and their initial response was “busy,” how did they look? They probably took a deep breath and exhaled, engaging their whole body. Their shoulders probably slumped forward so that they looked particularly exhausted and nearly defeated. Their tone of voice was likely neutral or even a bit depressed.

Yet they uttered “busy” with a slight smile, and then proceeded to detail their obligations and involvements, nearly exhausting you in the meantime.

Maybe you’ve been this friend before; this definitely sounds familiar to me. This is not to say they intentionally acted this way, or that they don't really have a number of things to do. But this behavior is part of a role we've created — it’s practically what’s expected. And we don't just act it out for others; it often becomes part of the way we see ourselves.


Do we allow “being busy” to consume us so that when we inevitably fail at something our self-sabotage can be the culprit — so we can blame “doing too much?”


I have to wonder why we routinely allow “being busy” to consume us:

Is it because if it looked like we didn’t struggle to get there, our accomplishments may be undermined?

Is it because we attach certain meaning to pushing ourselves well beyond our limits yet still getting it all done — at any cost?

Is it because doing less doesn’t feel like an option?

Is it because, rather than residing in our comfort zone and maximizing our potential in a few areas of expertise, we crave more?

Is it because being spread too thin is “trending?”

Is it so that we have an excuse to indulge in self-care?

It is because we like feeling like we’re just barely keeping our heads above water?

Is it to avoid emotions or difficult relationships?

Is it so that when we inevitably fail at something our self-sabotage can be the culprit — so we can blame “doing too much?”

Any of these resonate with you?

Performing busy,” as widespread a practice as it is, is not without its consequences.

When we play this role, nobody sees the detrimental aspects of busyness, which only perpetuates the busyness cycle.

But, please, trust me. Burnout is real, and it isn’t cute. It looks like hours in the emergency room combating a diagnosis of excessive fatigue and spending a week in bed, wondering when the feeling that you’ve been hit by a truck — and failed to meet everyone’s expectations — will subside. (Try performing that!)

Yes, I know the feeling of invincibility that comes from attempting to do it all. I know the energy and confidence that accrues from checking off the last item on your day’s/week’s/hour’s to-do list.

I can relate to the electric feeling in your fingers and toes when you’re fueled solely by caffeine and adrenaline — it’s like possibility and efficiency are bubbling out of you! I know the sense of pride you feel from beating the odds, or defying the expectations.

Yet I’m here to tell you that your laundry lists of obligations and "do all the things" attitude are just a few of many examples of what it looks like to “perform busy.”

And while I know it isn't possible to jettison every obligation, at least without making some compromises, it's rarely necessary to be quite as busy as we are.

It’s OK to drop the act.

You may not successfully conquer all the competing expectations from family, friends, work, and life in general — and that’s OK!

In fact, I bet if we collectively spent less time fixating on all the things we have yet to do, we might actually realize we can do most of what we set out to accomplish!


Your Busy Friend

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