Pet peeves – I’ve got a few. Who doesn’t. Mine are the people who drive 10-15kms below the speed limit. As well as people who seem to think that the foot-path is one large ashtray. And the meanderer reading their phone while walking. It’s never just the act itself that riles me up, but rather the lack of consideration behind it, the state of being deliberately oblivious to the world around you and those with whom you are sharing it. Over time, these particular pet peeves have eroded my inner calm and brought out the sarcastic driving instructor in me, the loud cougher and the tutt-tutt-er. And I’m somewhat ashamed to say, because it reflects badly on my patience, that these are not my only peeves, there are days when everything about the world and it’s inhabitants (sometimes myself included) annoys the crap out of me. And, yes, it’s worse if I haven’t eaten – then I’m peeved and ‘hirritable’ (hungry-irritable).
The act that truly gets my hackles up, though, the one that almost makes me forget whatever remaining manners I have and let loose the snarl that is building deep in my belly, are the people who respond to my inquiry about how they are, with the word “busy.”
“Hi, old friend who I have known for years and with whom I have shared much. How are you?”
‘Busy’ has become such a common and forceful part of our vernacular that now every time I hear it, I feel as though I have been slapped. A sharp backhand across my cheek that stings for hours after the encounter. And it amazes even me, someone who is fairly robust in the face of much of humanity’s insensitivities, how such a short refrain can engender a feeling within me of being impossibly small, of my time being worthless. ‘Busy’ leaves me feeling guilty that my lungs are drawing oxygen that could otherwise be used to power on this paragon of virtue, without whom the world would surely cease to turn. Not to worry, your reply winds me perfectly.
It seems, however, that what is occurring is an unchecked, gross misuse of the word. That people are tossing it around willy nilly, as dictated by ego, rather than fact. And that if we are not careful, before long we will have rewritten the national anthem and find ourselves singing “Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and… busy…”.
So before I continue my rant (yes, I admit, this post is a rant) about all the reasons why the use of the word ‘busy’ annoys me so greatly, perhaps it’s time for a quick language 101 recap on the actual definition of ‘busy’. Don’t worry, this won’t take long, after all.. your time is important to me .
‘Busy’ as defined by the “world’s most trusted dictionary”, the Oxford: is an adjective meaning “having a great deal to do.”
And there in lies the problem – too often we express the word as though it were a verb, and by doing so we have begun to live the fallacy behind the action of ‘busying ourselves’. Which is very different from actually being busy.
The evolution of the term ‘busy work’ is key to this – a term used to describe activities that do not enhance or add value, but that we commit ourselves to whole heartedly in order to avoid appearing idle and unproductive. Which in itself is symptomatic of a society that does not understand the true value of life balance, or even of rest, which we often describe as ‘downtime’ implying a sense of waste and loss.
Unfortunately, we have also become so committed to achieving high standards of ‘busy work’ that along the way we have begun to believe the lie we are selling. We have forgotten the actual purpose of this task to the point that when someone asks how we are, we respond self-righteously as though we genuinely are ‘busy’.
‘Multi-tasking’ is another catch-phrase underpinning our need to appear productive (aka ‘busy) at all costs. Heaven forbid you actually commit to doing one task at a time and doing it well. We live in an age in which we have convinced ourselves and others of the need to do everything, at once, within impossible tight deadlines. We have multiple balls in the air, we parade a rotation of hats, we sit before two screens because one is no longer enough. We are not living realistically. We have become self-contained circuses.
My favourite phrase though is the double-barrelled: “Busy-busy”. As though somehow it is possible to be busier than busy? And I didn’t even get time to turn the other cheek.
To be fair, though, you may actually be busy. For instance, you may be the Secretary-General of the United Nations (I’m truly honoured you have found the time to read my little post) or the Secretary-General’s senior advisor (again, thanks for tuning in, please feel free to leave a comment if you have time). You may be in the middle of a war zone negotiating for a cease-fire, while taking indirect hits (“Sorry mum, I’m a little busy right now. Can I call you back later?”) Or you may be the single mum of quadruplets (in which case… well…good luck with that).
More likely though, you’re just another person with a full-time job, who’s working out how to balance your personal life with your professional obligations. You get paid more or less than the person standing next to you. You have a desk with a view or a cubicle in a sea of other cubicles, where the only thing that defines you is the pink flamingo you attached to the top of your monitor. You have designated hours, which you either work to or beyond. You clock on and off, or you breeze in and out as you like. You have deadlines, benchmarks, goals, performance reviews and colleagues you hate. You have someone who works with you, for you or against you, or you work alone. You get a lunch break, during which you line up like cattle, scoff down your brown-bagged sandbo, have a meeting – or all three. Unless you’re the single mum of those quadruplets – in which case you are probably eating standing up, while breastfeeding and putting on a load of washing. (Now that’s multi-tasking.) And when all of that has finished, and usually before it starts, you have a whole other life, involving family, friends, cooking, eating, calling your mum, running, watching the news, doing the banking, the washing, the cleaning, buying champagne, drinking said champagne, reading, blogging, settling kids and bedtime routines, sleeping, etc, etc.
I know, it sounds exhausting, but reality check, that’s not ‘busy’ – that’s life.
At some point in the last ten to twenty years, however, stating that one is ‘busy’ has gone from being a frantic and somewhat annoying gripe to being a semi-professional mantra, until finally it has become an assertion of one’s social worth. Today, ‘busy’ defines our standing at work, in our social lives and even at home. “I am busy, therefore I am.” In a single word we seek to establish a pecking order, placing ourselves at the top.
‘Busy’ has become the catch phrase that sparks a war of words – a competition to establish whom the busiest person is, with no real thought as to why we need to do this. But the truth is that telling someone that you are busy, sounds a lot like, “I am more important than you.” And in this respect the statement becomes a put down, dismissive of the other person’s value and on occasion even an act of bullying. Translated as “I don’t have time for you and this conversation, I’m important and my time is valuable… unlike yours.” ‘Busy’ gives us power.
Ironically, the subtext to all of this is more often a feeling of not being important, valued or productive. “Busy” is the mask we hide behind for fear that we will be judged for having that frowned upon ‘down-time’, a moment to breath, a break in our schedule or even just time to pee. (Although if you are really busy, you don’t have time to drink, so you won’t need to pee.)
For me this external pressure to be ‘busy’ came to a head in the last 12 months with the death of my father and a health scare. I struggled at a ridiculously deep level with guilt about taking time off for both. I didn’t feel I was entitled to leave, though I had hours of it sitting there unused, and that by even being away for one day I was letting the whole team down. And it was only retrospectively that I realised that there were actually only a handful of people who insisted that I did take leave. (My thanks to them.) But what amazed me more were the number of people who told me in exasperated tones, tinged with an air of self-importance, about how ‘busy’ they were, when I had just returned from taking four days off (two in fact, if you exclude the weekend) to mourn the loss of my father. Slap.
Going through the motions of grieving, healing, working, and all the other day to days of living, I came to understand that we live in world where it has become reasonable to expect people to squeeze 48 hours worth of work into 24 hours. To encourage hyper productivity, even if the outcomes remain unchanged. And to then take it a step further and judge someone on his or her ability to do so without collapsing – or just needing a break. We are have become focussed on ‘busy’ to the detriment of our own health and welfare, as well as that of others.
It also bugs me to no end that people assume I am ‘less busy’ simply because I am single. Ergo, I have greater capacity to take on more responsibility at work. Ergo, if someone needs to stay back late, mine is the first name that comes to mind. And that somehow my being single entitles other people to fill my schedule without due consultation, to nominate me, to expect I can put in longer hours, to assign me for the task that no one else could possibly find the time to do – because people who are married and particularly those with children are ‘busy’. It’s unseen, it’s insipid, but the truth is we often turn to the “army” of single people, whose lives are apparently a series of long, lazy hours during which they sit around doing nothing, but twiddling their thumbs and waiting to be called on.
When I started to think about the refrain ‘busy’ and why it offended me so much, I realised that part of the answer lay in the way we each view how we and others are spending our time (i.e. our lives), whether at work or at home or at play. The truth was, as much as I had become guilty myself of responding with ‘busy’, this was merely a default position, not the factory setting.
So I set about resetting my view of self as ‘busy’, to that as ‘fully occupied and alive’. Whether I am running from one side of town to the other for a meeting, while typing up the notes from the last meeting; sweating it out in the gym, while listening to the news in Japanese; head down tail up in downward dog, with my mind a blank canvas; preparing a dinner party for eight; writing about my pet peeves; or nodding off to dreamland. I am not busy, I am alive.
These days I am practising what I preach and training myself to respond with realism (“I’m at full throttle today.” “It’s all go, go, go.” “I probably need to slow down and come up for air.” “It’s a quite day, which is great!” “I’m enjoying a nice steady pace at the moment.”) and with respect to what the other person is actually asking me about – whether it be about my work, home or life in general. Regardless of how I am feeling, I have a zero tolerance for the word ‘busy’ coming out of my mouth. I’m even thinking of instigating a swear jar in the office, to coach not only myself, but to encourage others to give not take, to equalise not elevate, to respond and engage. Life isn’t a tweet or a Facebook status update. It’s a conversation with friends, colleagues and loved ones. #banbusy
And on those occasions when I am feeling overwhelmed at work or at home I respond by asking: “Is it too early for champagne?” To which the answer is: “Never.”