How Do You Give Up Being Busy?

If you asked me how I’m doing for the last six months, there’s pretty good odds I told you I was either busy, really busy, or completely fucking manic depending on how well we know each other. It’s the default answer to the question for me and a lot of other people in my office (and, lets be honest, worldwide).

Thing is, I don’t really want to be busy. I want to be getting a lot of shit done, which means I’m okay with loading up on a whole heap of projects, but I dislike the idea of busy being my default state.

So I’ve decided to stop using it, particularly in light of this post from 99u, which points out the inherent problem in talking about the amount of stuff you’ve got on:

Saying, “Busy!” has become the automatic non-answer when somebody asks, “How are you?” It immediately shuts down an interaction and any opportunity for constructive conversation is dashed upon the rocks of ineloquence.

via 99u, A Conversation About Being Busy is Barely a Conversation at All

And lest I seem particularly virtuous in this instance, let me be completely honest: I expect I’ll have an easier time giving up breathing than I will giving up this particular crutch.

But I’m working on it.

My Problem With Busy

I’m travelling a lot this year, I’ve got a stack of major projects at QWC, a workshop to teach every couple of weeks, and a stack of writing projects on top of that. Add in some regular gaming, blogging, and the odd spot of leisure time, and the hours get eaten up pretty quickly.

And none of that is about to change.

Busy implies that this level of motion in my to-do list isn’t the status quo. Human beings are naturally busy people – we’re designed to be in motion, to be doing stuff, to achieve things. Even when I was in the depths of slackerdom, there was still that ambition there. I just aimed it at getting a new top score on Super Mario rather than trying to hit things out of the park at my job.

What I’m really saying when I tell people I’m busy is…well, probably please pity me. Like most people who grew up male, introverted and nerdy, seeking sympathy or pity has always been easier than presenting myself as a likable human being. I’ve tried to get a better handle on it now that I’m an adult, but the impulse is always there, seductive and easy.

Busy is a cheap way of asking for validation. People empathise, ’cause we’ve all been busy, and thus my existence on this earth justified by the simple state of being in motion. Even if, when they’re asking me how I am, I’m probably in a state of relaxation on account that I’m out, hanging with peeps who actually like me enough to inquire about my well-being.

Things are Actually Kind of Awesome Right Now, Thank you

I’ve been thinking about being busy and why I think it’s worthy of sympathy ever since I read Busyness is Not a Virtue (linked to by 99u; apparently I haven’t been so busy that I can’t follow link chains down the rabbit hole). I’m not as hardline as the author of that piece – I think there are times when the pressure valve of busy can be useful – but I can see their point.

And it occurs to me that I shouldn’t be busy in the sympathy seeking sense. All that shit I’ve got on? It’s actually kind of awesome. I’ve got a completely fucking kick-ass day job where I get to talk about writing and get paid for it. When I’m not doing that, I get to make shit up and have people give me money for it. When I’m doing that, I’m getting paid to travel around the place and catch up with some pretty awesome folks (or, at least, claiming such trips on tax)

And when I’m not working, I get to hang out with my friends and do stuff that makes me pretty goddamn happy.

All in all, my life is pretty good. People should fucking hit me for expecting their fucking pity.

But they don’t. Instead, they’re sympathetic, or they offer up their own tales of manic-fucking-craziness that’ll match my own, and we’ll commiserate over a cup of coffee and agree that being busy kind of sucks.

Here’s the problem with that:

When I Tell You I’m Busy, I’m Actually Lying

For me, I think I’m busy is really an attempt to say I’m not really in control right now. It’s an acknowledgement that I’m in motion, but not sure where I’m going and I’m unable to figure out what should be a priority. Or, worse, that I’ve stalled and I’m not sure how to start again, ’cause everything seems like it should be done right now.

I’m busy is a sign that I should buckle up and deal with things, figuring out what I need to do in order to regain control of my job, my writing, or my life. But so long as I say I’m busy and people offer me pity, it’s like I have tacit permission to continue along in my disorganised state.

As a survival tactic in my manic, fifty-fifty working life, that’s probably not the best option. And given the choice between being someone who flails at my problems, bumbling along as best I can, and being someone who is known for getting shit done, well, it should be a no-brainer, right?

So Here’s the Challenge

I know I want to stop being busy, but it’s one of those habits that’s heavily ingrained as a response.

The challenge in giving up I’m busy is figuring out what should replace it. This is relatively easy at work – putting things in terms of organisation priorities makes sense there – but in casual conversation it’s a little harder. Leaving busy behind means finding an alternative to take it’s place, and I’m not sure what that should be.

My brain still freezes when someone asks how things are going, locking up as it searches for an option that explains things, because I’m generally doing a good deal of incongruous stuff that isn’t easy to summarise. One doesn’t want to dominate conversation by rabbiting on about current projects, after all, especially if all people are hoping for is a police, socially mandated response to their inquiry as to how I’ve been.

So I’m looking for an alternative I can train myself into using. My instinct is to look for a way that emphasizes the awesome – a “great! We just launched our new website at work” kind of thing – but I’m wary of sounding like a pompous dick when I embrace that approach, even if it’s probably better for me, psychologically speaking, to focus on the stuff that’s been getting done.

So I turn to you, oh internet; what kind of responses would you like to see as a replacement for busy? What are the responses people have given to that question that make you glad you asked?

  5 comments for “How Do You Give Up Being Busy?

  1. 15/07/2013 at 10:47 AM

    I don't mind people using busy if they elaborate. However I know that I use it when I'm not interested in expanding. Contradicted myself a little there but I'm a woman, we're a complex breed that likes to change our mind. I digress.

    – "Flat out like a lizard drinking." This one is both Aussie and awesome. Makes me smile.
    – "Living the dream." I say this one daily. It makes people think, am I telling the truth or not? Some people laugh, others ask me if it's a good or bad dream. I've even had people say they are honored to be in my dream. (Yeah. That got awkward.) People who know me well see straight through it. I started saying it to remind myself of my dream and now it's my default response. Either way it's a great conversation starter. Regardless of my mood, state of activity or stress levels it manages to make me crack smile and that is never a bad thing.

    "Living the dream" is my gift to you. Try it and let me know how it works for you.

  2. 15/07/2013 at 10:51 AM

    Americans see no problem whatsoever with answering "How are you?" with something awesome — your example would sound perfect to me, especially as it's a "we" statement, not an "I" statement (which, even to an American, would make you sound a little pompous). "We just launched our new website" would sound to me like "I'm happy to be involved with a great group of people", not "we're [or I'm] better than you."

  3. katherinelw
    15/07/2013 at 7:05 PM

    How about "busy" with a caveat? Along the lines of "flat out and loving every minute of it" or "crazy busy and wouldn't have it any other way". Acknowledging your busyness and also that it's pretty bloody good to be so busy and that the things you're doing are all kinds of awesome.

  4. meg
    19/07/2013 at 2:22 PM

    this is such an awesome post, Peter. I reckon we can start a new movement – the "I'm doing heaps of stuff I'm really into, and feeling out of control with juggling all of teh awesome things – so how's things with you?" club!

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