Are you caught in the busy trap?

By Mel Sim

It doesn’t mean that you’re being productive. Here’s why.

I have a confession: I didn’t do any work at all yesterday. Granted I am a freelance writer and luxuries like taking a day off is something I have control over but rewind 10 years ago and I would never think of doing something so trivial as not working.

Why? Because in my mind then it was important to be busy all the time... or it would mean that I am lacking in ambition. Didn’t help that whenever I spoke to friends and asked how their day went, they often sighed and replied, “So busy! Don’t even know where to start!”

Which made me feel inadequate if I didn’t have a schedule that included 101 things to complete for the day. Were my friends working harder at making their careers better than I was? Should I be putting in more hours to excel? If I am not busy does that mean I don’t have any work to do, which is not exactly good news for a freelancer like me?

I was not the only one who worried about not being busy enough. In fact, a lot of us feel guilty about it so much so that it has become somewhat of a glory badge when you tell others how busy you are and how little time you have for yourself. New York Times writer Tim Kreider called it The Busy Trap in his 2012 article where he wrote being busy is “pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

Which is true, if you think about it. Because when you say you are busy, it means you must be doing serious work and have a pretty important job function that requires you to be busy, busy all the time. If you aren’t busy, that means you’re not really pulling your weight, right?

Like Kreider wrote in his article, “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

But there is a downfall to the busy trap – we sometimes get so caught up with “being busy” that we don’t really focus on the actual job that needs to be done. Because we are doing a gazillion other things at the same time to appear busy! How’s that good for productivity? Not at all, obviously. You may end up starting a lot of projects and finishing very few, and on top of that not doing really well when you do.

Then there is the habit of overcommitting and overworking ourselves to address this guilt trip of not having things to do. You don’t say no to your boss because you don’t want to seem like you’re slacking. Plus you want to appear like you’re on top of things so bring on the deadlines! In reality, how much can you handle without the quality of your work declining?

There’s also the whole work-life balance you might want to think about. Is being soooo busy really worth you putting off spending time with family, skipping meals, and end up being depressed and burnt out? At the end of the day, do you want to remember your life for always ticking off your to-do list at work... or your to-do list for life?

Not to say that you start slacking off. But what you need to know is that it is OK to say no once in a while, especially when you can’t cope. Which do you think is worst – you turning down a meeting because you have a deadline to catch up on or you showing up for the meeting late (because you were busy working on the deadline), not prepared for it (no time!), show lack of attention and focus (how can you when you can’t stop thinking of the other 101 things to do!), and by the end of the day you’re so exhausted and feel dejected because you didn’t accomplish whatever you’ve set yourself out to do.

Don’t let the not-busy guilt consume you. If you think you deserve that break, do it. If you don’t think you have time to work on another project, be honest and tell your boss. After all, there will be many other days for you to be busy and other projects to work on. Life’s too short to be busy all the time.

Photo by Robert Bye on Unsplash

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