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Cluttered Calendar?

Declare your Independence from the "Busyness Trap"

Busy office lobby filled with business men and women rushing past

For this week’s blog, we are turning the writer’s pen over to our friend Dan Bowling, Senior Lecturing Fellow at Duke Law School, former head of human resources for Coca-Cola Enterprises, and a leading scholar on personal well-being in the workplace. Dan writes extensively on the connection between happiness and work satisfaction—a good thing to ponder as we look toward the new year.

How’s your weekend looking? Busy, right? Forget sleeping in, hitting a museum, pounding natty lites while watching some hoops. You are catching up on some paperwork, aren’t you? Maybe going by the office. Checking the comments on your latest LinkedIn blog post (ahem). Tending to your precious social media presence, of course. And wait, the kids have a meet at the club tonight—gotta run! Yep, me too. Busy.

Have you noticed, as did Tim Krieder in a popular article in the New York Times, that the default response when you ask anyone “how are you doing” is: “Busy. So Busy. CrazyBusy.” But when you follow up, to find out exactly why they are so busy, the answer gets a little fuzzy. Rarely does it involve a precisely defined task, to be completed within a specific period of time, measured by commonly accepted goals, and of any significance whatsoever beyond a small group of people.

In other words, most busyness is a trap, imposed almost entirely by oneself or one’s immediate colleagues, and usually of no lasting importance. “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is how Shakespeare put it centuries ago.

I'm busy, so I must be important, right?

Krieder makes an excellent point distinguishing between us—with our quotidian middle-class, white collar existence—and people who are actually busy. People who are working two shifts in an hourly job to make the rent, for example. When you ask them how they are doing, they don’t say “busy.” They say “exhausted.”

Those of who play the busy card are “almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they have taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve encouraged their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence,” Krieder writes.

The larger issue Krieder alludes to is one of the causes of our chronic busyness, I believe. If you scratch very hard on the surface of workplace busyness you can find a lot of people desperately trying to prove their worth, not only to their bosses but to themselves: “of course my job (life) is important, my calendar is full, I am completely booked, all the time, every day. See?” In other words, constant motion and activity is a bulwark against not just job elimination but existential dread.

How much of your busyness is self-imposed?

Mind you, there is some good to be had in constant activity. Movement toward a future goal is a bedrock principal of cognitive behavioral therapy. When bogged down, set a specific goal, any goal, and work hard to achieve it. It is the activity itself and the self-efficacy it brings that improves mood and cognition, and wards off depression. And existential dread is something worthy of avoidance, as far as I am concerned. There is a reason it is called “dread.”

But this is not a column about existentialism or cognitive behavioral therapy. I know you are too busy to wade that deeply today, because there is plenty of other Web content staring you in the face and I appreciate you sticking with me this far.

So let’s focus on another question. How much of our busyness at work is caused by non-essential things? For example, is that new succession planning process your boss pushed through—the one that you are driving yourself nuts trying to get the sales team to cooperate with—really necessary? And do you need to meet every day for a few hours with your HR department to complain about the sales team? Did you ever stop to think that maybe IT IS A WASTE OF EVERYBODY’S TIME? A distraction from other things at work, like ... sales?

Maybe we should just chill out, and quit acting like modern-day versions of Willie Loman trying to prove that we exist (“Attention must be paid!”). Too often our efforts, no matter how benign, create stress and excess busyness for everyone in our orbit.

Declare your independence

Try this: As you plan the days and weeks ahead of you, ask yourself which of your activities are really necessary. More importantly, ask which might create more unnecessary busyness for those around you and distract from their lives or work. Declare your independence from the busy trap. You’ll be happier, and so will those around you.

Now, gotta run. Need to post this and spend the day promoting it. You see, I am really busy.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn on February 9, 2018. More articles by this author:

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