Busyness is not a badge of honour

Being busy all the time has become a badge of honour — albeit a heavy, awkward, uncomfortable badge that doesn’t go with any of your outfits. According to a study by The Everest College, workplace stress is on the rise, with eight in ten employees feeling ‘frazzled’. In a busy world, getting caught up in our ever-growing to-do list is not only seen as okay, but also rewarded. The Economist highlighted the ludicrous rise of articles that highlight how many things successful people do before breakfast. When did the race to breakfast get so competitive? All this busyness affects our physical and mental health, and stops us focusing on the goals that matter, according to McKinsey&Company.

The hidden race

Dr Brené Brown’s research explores this phenomenon. She claims that, in our collective mindset, “exhaustion has become a status symbol”. We’re participating in an unspoken race where the most exhausted wins.

This hidden race to tiredness is coming at a physical cost that we often can’t see. Tony Schwartz published an article in the Harvard Business Review stating that “over 80% of the top 400 leaders reported they spend the majority of their days feeling negative emotions, fueled in large part by overload and overwhelm”.

As we run from one project to the next, juggling ever-faster speeding balls, the first three things to drop off our list are sleep, nutrition and exercise. We lose sleep worrying about the sheer amount of stuff we have to get done, we grab food where we can (which is never the best for us) and eat it on the run — fast and nasty is usually the choice — and the most exercise we get is running to catch the lift to our next meeting. Our focus on these health behaviours goes to the bottom of our pile right at the time when more energy, not less, is required.

The armour of busyness

Busy can also be armour we wear to protect us from facing the thing that really matters, providing a legitimate reason to put off or avoid the conversations we need to have with others. Checking our phones the moment we step out of a meeting stops us from connecting with the person walking out next to us. Rushing to our next meeting gets in the way of us having that boundary-setting conversation we know we need to have.

How do we give up this badge of busyness?

1.     Stop before you start

When we take on new work projects, we take on more stuff, and doing so can sometimes feel like trying to squeeze more air out of an accordion that is already deflated. Rather than take on more, you first need to stop something else to create time and space for the new tasks.

Consider whether you could do one or more of the following:

  • Stop staying back late/arriving early to work.
  • Stop going to every meeting.
  • Stop taking work home.
  • Stop taking work calls after 7pm.
  • Stop sending emails after hours.

These are not prescriptive, but ask yourself what you would gain and what you would lose by stopping these or similar activities in your life, even for a short while.

2.     Set clear boundaries

If you don’t set boundaries for what you’re prepared to do, others will set them for you. Setting boundaries allows you to commit fully to your goals, and ensures you don’t sacrifice the things that matter to you most. These boundaries mean you can concentrate on the actions that give you most traction, or the behaviours that actually lead to progress, because your focus is not divided.

Here are three ways to set boundaries:

  • Drop the ‘hint’: Be explicit about what’s okay and what’s really not okay.
  • Be okay with pushback: Worrying about being liked can quickly get in the way of sticking to your boundaries. Instead, be anchored in yourself and certain of your worth, and aware that pushback from others doesn’t mean you are in any way a ‘bad’ person. It means you’re a ‘boundaried’ person.
  • Stop apologising: Your language can either allow you to ‘own’ your boundaries or undermine them, and a strong boundary is definitely undermined by an apology.

Remember — the badge of busy is not serving anyone, especially not the best of what you can offer. Busy is not going away, so finding calm in the chaos requires us to make the time for what matters. It’s time to drop the martyrdom, own what is important to you, and then defend the stuff that matters, even among the busyness.

Alison Hill is a psychologist and co-founder of Pragmatic Thinking, a behaviour and motivation strategy company. An international and in-demand keynote speaker, Alison is also the bestselling co-author of Dealing with the Tough Stuff and Stand Out: A Real World Guide to Get Clear, Find Purpose and Become the Boss of Busy (Wiley $27.95). For more information, visit www.alisonhill.com.au or email [email protected]