Is busyness your badge of honor?

“My God, people are competing about being busy. It’s about showing status. That if you’re busy, you’re important. You’re leading a full and worthy life.”

– Ann Burnett, communications researcher, from ‘Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time’

In my last LinkedIn article ‘Will You Buy What Amazon Is Selling (Its Employees)?’, I was struck by a commenter who assumed I must be a workaholic because of my take on why some people work long hours. What he saw as workaholism, I perceived as passion. Then again, I had also allowed myself, more than once, to burn out as a result of that passion. But for the grace of an inner knowing that nudged me to take a break or quit a job whenever things got too out of whack, I wouldn’t be the healthy and happy person I am today.

All this got me thinking about and searching for the deeper beliefs and assumptions we hold about our time. Why do we choose to sink so much time into something? Why don’t we stop, even when our body or our loved ones tell us we’re overdoing it?

A few months after writing that article, I stumbled upon Brigid Schulte’s book ‘Overwhelmed’ and it offered up some revealing answers.


We can’t help ourselves

For a number of reasons, many Americans seem addicted to being busy, and often feel helpless to do much about it. According to research by Washington Post writer Brigid Schulte, communications professor Ann Burnett and a host of others featured in the book, there’s a pervasive culture that rewards busyness above all else. As a result, life has become habitually stressful, even in remote towns like Fargo, North Dakota. (Yes, that Fargo.)

Case in point: Burnett started to collect holiday letters, to see how often people used time-starved words like ‘busy’, ‘hectic’, ‘whirl-wind’, ‘consumed’ or ‘hard to keep up with it all’. After analyzing thousands of letters, dating back to the 1960s, Burnett noticed more people are increasingly talking about being time-starved. But not just talking about it, mind you…they were boasting about it, proud of their near superhuman ability to cram ever more activities into ever less time.

In the book, Burnett goes on to say that “busyness is now the social norm that people feel they must conform to, or risk being outcasts.” And Edson Rodriguez, a sociologist who studies frenetic families in L.A., was quoted as saying “As a culture, we have translated speed into being a virtue. If you are busy, if you get things done quickly, if you move quickly throughout the day, it expresses success. You’re achieving. We’re validated by those around us living the same way and sanctioned if we aren’t following this cultural expectation. The feeling is, if I’m not busy today, something’s wrong.”

This has broader implications

Now, if this rings true for us as a culture, then it would help to explain why:

  • we beat ourselves up whenever we’re out of work
  • we don’t know how to give ourselves the gift of leisure time (more on this later)
  • we think of time management as merely a way to cram more things into less time
  • we fool ourselves into believing that we lead full lives simply because we have full calendars
  • offshore workers in American multinational companies could get infected by this same busyness bug, or could end up being assessed by the same US busyness benchmark when considered for raises or promotions


The thing is, as part of a workforce for the global economy, we’ve also been conditioned or taught to believe that time is money. The more hours we clock, or the more hours we can get our employees to work, the more money we’ll make.


People are not machines. We need breaks to rest, to daydream and to innovate. If we don’t build in adequate downtime into our day, we end up killing our chances for the clear thinking and breakthrough ideas that all businesses crave.

Rethinking leisure

But more than that…we need to understand that leisure is something to cherish, because it’s a big part of what makes us human. In the words of leisure researcher Ben Hunnicutt, also featured in Brigid Schulte’s book, leisure in its purest sense is not being slothful, idle or frivolous. It is simply being open to the wonder and marvel of the present. It’s about choosing to do something (or nothing at all) with no other aim than that it refreshes the soul.

We need to restore leisure to what it is and can be for us all. It’s not merely a time for play and connection with others. Think of it also as a time of vital restoration and rebooting, to meditate on your day, reflect on how it has unfolded and to think deeply about where you want to go next.

I leave you with a final quote from Hunnicutt in Overwhelmed. “In the Middle Ages, the sin of sloth had two forms. One was paralysis, the inability to do anything – what we would see as lazy. But the other side was something called acedia – running about frantically. The sense that, ‘There’s no real place I’m going, but by God, I’m making great time getting there.’”

Think about that the next time you have an urge to be busy for busyness’ sake.

Do you or someone you know wear busyness as a badge of honor? How has the urge to be busy served you (or not)? Have you found your sweet formula for leisure time? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’d love to hear your take so we can all learn together.


If you or someone you care about feels time-starved, and you’re ready to embrace the power & unparalleled productivity of inviting a steadier, calmer and happier existence into your life, consider signing up for Maya’s ‘Make Peace With Time’ program.


About the Author

Maya loves life in the innovation lane. An avid student of life, learning & leadership, she has worked and lived on 3 continents, bringing her globally-minded flair to her clients and personal passions.

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