Busy is not a badge of honour

For the British readers among you, you will most likely have grown up using this social exchange:

Person 1: “How are you?”

Person 2: “Fine, thank you.”

Note, I am not making the assumption that you have always been fine, rather that it has always been customary to say so. In polite, stiff-upper-lip Britishness it has always been considered polite to say everything is well and move on with conversation – in the same way, it is etiquette to ask but we rarely pay attention to the answer.


Blame my degree in English Linguistics but I’ve observed a shift in this interchange over the last few years (don’t worry, I have been doing other things in that time, too). Fine is no longer the response we give or receive, it has been replaced by ‘busy’. At some point, someone said they were busy and instead of hanging on to the tradition and comfort of ‘fine’, we’ve all started doing it. I can only assume that in adjective top trumps, ‘busy’ is considered to be better than fine in some way.


So why might that be? It definitely shows a move from focusing on our wellbeing to one of action. But busy doesn’t sound all that appealing – it’s not what we crow about after our amazing summer holiday or put to the top of our list of new year’s resolutions. So then, busy must represent something else. My theory is busy has become code for successful, and hard-won success at that. I’ve watched people reel off lists of all the things they are doing with an expression of equal parts exasperation and pride. To be busy is to be in demand, to best the best person for the job, to be important. And we clearly want everyone to know we’re smashing it. We might as well say ‘Don’t worry, I’ve not wasted a second of my life since we last spoke, I’ve been DOING things”. It doesn’t much seem to matter what’s kept us busy as long as something has. Person 1 shares sympathetic or encouraging looks as they prepare their own monologue of activities in response.


I’ll admit it, there have been moments where I’ve felt slightly smug as I rattle out my lengthy activity list to my stunned crowd. But there’s a couple of warning flags in there if that happens to you, too. Firstly why do I feel competitive with the people I’m conversing with? On a conscious level, I don’t, but I’m still doing it, so this suggests that somewhere a lot deeper than my automatic ‘busy’, something isn’t totally ‘fine’. This brings me to the second red flag: the fact I’m almost as surprised and impressed by this list as my listener is. Have you ever caught yourself thinking “it sounds pretty good when I say it like that”? That, dear friends, is a very stark sign that the one thing you haven’t crowbarred into your schedule is time for reflection. Without reflection, we become human doings, instead of human beings, and there’s no accolade in mindlessly completing task after task – after all, that’s what the robots are for. We should at least be reflecting on how we’ve done things, why we’ve done things and making learnings for the future.


Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s necessarily bad to be busy. Heck, I’d be in trouble too! But when did you last take a minute to check in with yourself and see how you’re feeling? Is your level of busy working for you?


Take a look at today’s schedule and if you find you are filled with a sense of dread, empower yourself to practice a little self-kindness – create some space in the day just for you, not to do anything, just to be. Oh, and maybe take your busy badge off next time someone asks how you are.


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