It’s okay to be busy, and it’s okay to say it!

man working on laptop

This blog was published in the Harvard Business Review recently and has been currently trending on social media. Everyone seems to be identifying with it and endorsing it whole-heartedly. In fact, some even owned up to being guilty of the syndrome that this blog talks about. So here’s what I think! This blog didn’t work for me at all. If anything, it made me feel quite the contrary to what it propounds.

For those who haven’t read it, the blog talks about the current trend of everyone being “busy”. What the author suggests is that most people, in fact, are NOT busy, but subscribe to the idea simply because being “swamped” is fashionable. She says that some even take it a step forward by being competitive about who is busier than the other. While the first part of the blog decries this phenomenon, the second part proposes a solution to this syndrome.

Let me begin by averring that people are actually busy. It is almost ridiculous to contest that. Having worked five jobs in organizations as large as multinational companies and as small as three-member social startups and all that is in between and having been exposed to a very international work landscape, I can safely say that no one is getting away with less work in today’s world. Funds are tight, expectations are high, accountability is paramount, competition is huge, resources are stretched, layoffs are a reality and aspiration levels are going through the roof. Very few people across most industries today have the luxury to sit back and take it easy. Work might be lean and hectic from time to time, but the general state is that of having to deliver high quality work. Even for those traditionally considered unemployed (for example, homemakers bringing up children), it is a constant fight for time trying to juggle among multiple responsibilities of maintaining a household, ensuring the kids are doing well in school, and so on. An average adult in today’s world spends more than ten hours a day “doing work”. Take eight hours out for sleep and that leaves us with barely six more hours to pack everything else in! It’s not easy for anyone, and let’s start by acknowledging that.

Secondly, life is not about just work. There’s a lot more that needs to be done outside of work. There’s health to be taken care of. You want to work out a few times every week; you want to make sure you eat well hence, do your groceries on time; you want to sleep undisturbed for six to eight hours every night. Then there are the logistics – bills to be paid, repairs to be made, gadgets to be serviced, taxes to be filed, forms to be filled, agreements to be signed, houses to be moved. Then there are projects – holidays to be planned, tickets to be booked, a birthday party to be arranged, Christmas gifts to be made or bought. And adding to all of these are the essential relationships to be nurtured – a parent, a love interest, a partner, a close friend. Again, only six hours for all of this.

Thirdly, “being busy” is not just about the number of hours one sits on their seats in front of the laptop. It is a state of mind. As a mid-to-senior professional, I have multiple responsibilities and handle very important clients. So, sometimes, even when I’m not working working, I’m thinking about work, reading up, following trends, examining online forums, catching up on research, and so on. Also, the author does disservice to the entire professional community by painting work in broad brushstrokes. Everyone has varying capabilities that define how much time it takes them to get to the desired outcomes. When I do work that comes naturally to me, I can be quick. However, there are tasks that I am not inherently good at, and hence, I need to put in more effort and more time. There are also projects that require background reading, building a thorough understanding, developing clarity of thought, multiple team discussions. Honestly, I wish the author would present a more thorough understanding of what work means and takes.

Fourthly, being busy is also a function of where one lives and what stage of life one is in. Ten years ago, I would be more than happy to meet someone for a drink on a weeknight. Today, I look forward to coming back home to my warm shower, home-cooked dinner, a book and my bed. Is that wrong? I also invite the author to do the 40 kilometer commute I do every day in over-populated traffic-jammed Mumbai.

And, of course, then there are the weekend catch-ups with friends, there are movies I’ve been waiting for, books on my to-read list, places on my to-go list, and so on. There’s also a considerable amount of me-time to be factored into all of this.

And if all of the above makes me postpone hanging out with someone, or not go on a date, or even be practical about where I want to go on a date instead of elaborately planning the venue like teenagers, that’s fine. Instead of constantly feeling guilty and beating ourselves up about what we are not getting done, we should, if anything, feel proud about how much we do and how well!  Being busy is not a crime, and if one is busy, then why act as if we have all the time in the world?

The solution the author suggests makes the post even more ridiculous. “We need to work smart, not (just) hard” – she says. Tres chouette! This is the oldest cliché in the book of clichés. It is one of those Be yourself kind of memes that go viral on social media but don’t really mean anything. Of course, I’m going to be no one else but myself! Similarly, of course I’m going to work smart when I can. The author should grant human beings the intelligence of knowing how long a task at hand should take. If I can get something done in two hours, I wouldn’t take six hours unless I intend to for some reason. And that’s fine in that case, because that’s a choice I knowingly make. However, as I have pointed out above, there are tasks that can be worked on smartly, but there are tasks that need hard work, where any amount of “using schedulers” and “cutting flab” won’t help. If something will take you fifteen hours, it just will. If you’ve chosen to work on it, just accept it and do a good job of it! For example, can a corporate lawyer afford to “work smartly” through a very complex and important contract? No! Someone’s gotta be reading that thing inside out!

Disclaimer: I’m not against schedulers and agenda-driven meetings. However, I don’t think practicing those can suddenly free up a substantial amount of time. Efficiency is highly recommended, but is hardly a shortcut.

The author’s primary complaint seems to be people shouting from rooftops about how busy they are, and almost trying to outdo each other in the act (though she completely digresses in the latter half of the post and starts a lesson on time management. Huh?). The author’s example someone telling her he was busy with a “week-long fire drill” just seems like a one-off example of a not-so-clever man  clearly struggling to come up with an excuse. My experience has actually been quite the opposite. I think people say they are busy only when they really are. I get the “I had the best holiday ever” or “This job allows me the leeway to pursue personal goals” or “I’m learning Spanish! So happy” or “I’ve been working out a lot” or “I’m going to spend this weekend with my children” very often. Our generation (in our twenties and thirties now) is very comfortable talking about personal needs, goals and activities, and everyone seems to want to talk about what they are doing beyond work hours. In fact, social media capitalizes on that need and uses it to its benefit. No one wants to be known as an inhabitant of Loserville. Scroll up and down your Facebook newsfeed, and it’s full of well-dressed happy people pouting in pubs and beaches. I don’t recall having seen a photograph of someone sitting at his office desk at 11pm on a Friday night!

Finally, let’s come to the fundamental issue the author is trying to tackle (again, something she fleetingly mentions and gives up on). Are being so busy and doing so many things at the same time affecting our personal relationships? Are we spending lesser time with our loved ones, being more distracted when we are with them? I have to agree that the answer to that is a resounding YES. I’d love to say hi to my mother on the phone every night, but I’m sometimes quite exhausted for a phone conversation. I’d love to go spend a week or two with my closest friends in some other city, but I only have so many leaves and I want to go to new places. In our quest for professional betterment, we do tend to take it easy on our relationships sometimes. But the way I see it is that we only temper the frequency and intensity of relationships. If someone is really important to us, we would never let that person fade away. We may meet them once in two weeks instead of twice a week – but that’s alright, as long as the person in question understands. There’s also technology to fall back on – Whatsapp, Skype, Gchat, Facebook, phone calls. There are so many ways to constantly keep in touch on the move, share information, discuss issues, exchange views. I really don’t believe we’ve hit the end of the road with this.

I guess in spite of being really busy, if I’ve made time to write out a response to a blog post, I am making time for the things that I feel like doing. Or maybe I’m just not working smart enough?

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6 thoughts on “It’s okay to be busy, and it’s okay to say it!

  1. Kshama says:

    You have summed it rightly on behalf of many. We r busy.. but there are times when its ‘happy busy’ .. because we r doing things we chose to do (as u rightly have pointed out) . Stress is omnipresent, but i see that a lot of people are doing well in balancing ‘work’ n ‘life’.. even in metro cities. Yet sadly, most people buy/respond more to things that talk about stress and overlook pleasure (unless some friend posts the ‘pleasure/fun time’ on Facebook 😛 ). Then comes the sudden realisation of ‘OMG i Shoud live/ have fun but I am not?!’.. so blame stress or being-busy!!. This sect of people like the world talking about the mundane routines/ busy-hectic-work/ etc. to find solace in sympathy(i think), when there is acknowledgement of that fact that ‘Busy is normal. Busy is difficult to escape’.

    P.S: I think u r a realist (as a writer). I m a fan.

  2. Wanderer says:

    Agree in part. I’m tired of the work smart not just hard phrase too. If retrieving and analysing something takes an hour, it will take that much time, if not longer. A supervisor giving a 10 or 15 minute deadline is not helping, unless she invests the time to teach and guide you – which hardly seems to happen.

    In the end, we are indeed bogged down by just doing work we are paid for and the daily chores to survive (bills, laundry, commute, and well yes sleeping and eating* too) that the other stuff to add value to both our work and life are fighting for some space. Reading, exercise, connecting with friends and family, leisure or just gazing out of the window are considered wasting time. You’re ‘wasting your life away, life is so short, do something’.

    Coming to where I partly agree with the author’s frustration of almost the entire world appearing to be busy. I believe it stems from the office. Everyone appears to be busy, to be doing something amazing and oh-so-important. They might be. But then, your supervisor does not have the time to coach you to be smarter, not busier – he just tells you the cliche. You were busy all year long, but then someone better at being busy got promoted. In meetings we are all busy trying to get our voices heard that even if you’re wrong you have to shut the opposing voice so you can walk out head-held-high, apparently. Despite us all being so busy, only work seems to get piled on us (be it NY or Mumbai) – no additional manpower is added, the coffers of the company grows however. Looks like this needs to change.

    This has almost become a blog post. Time for me to get busy on something else.

    * I’ve met people who just take a croissant for lunch at desk, or who choose cars based on whats more comfortable to sleep in and capacity to store cartons of red-bull.

  3. Shirls says:

    I love this article. You have gone right to the heart of the matter. It was a great relief to read all those additional things in people’s lives – the one that don’t make it to schedules and to-do lists. Little wonder I’m never finished. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

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