When I ask people how they’re doing – especially work colleagues, but others too – many reply “busy”. I never quite understood what the word meant, but for a long while, I assumed it was an actual description of their objective circumstances: so many demands on their time that they cannot stop to think, more work than any human could possibly handle, various pressures, etc. And I developed a certain guilt, because I so rarely feel “busy” – never for more than a few hours anyway. I am a perpetual slacker, who lets others take the burden and goes off on a stroll? Should I make myself more busy?

Yesterday, at a friend’s birthday party, I heard the ‘b’ word mentioned again from another work colleague I don’t know very much. I decided it was time to ask, and I did “what does busy mean, I’ve never actually understood the word.” She had an interesting answer “when you’ve got so much to do that you don’t have time to answer emails, and feel a bit dizzy.” “Oh, I’ve never been in that state, or at least never for more than two or three hours.” She called me lucky – slightly peeved, or jealous? And left.

I reflected. When I was in high school, and then in preparatory class, I always finished my essays and assignments on time, even a day early. I may have been the only one. People saw me as a strange oddity. The feeling was mutual. We had three weeks to finish a paper, the paper took between 15 and 20 hours to finish. Surely, the right time to start was not the evening before. Yet half the class did, and a good third only got to it a few days in advance. I could see that I was the odd one out, and yet I thought – if you started on time, you wouldn’t rush at the end.

I’ve now realised it’s the same with ‘busy’. Surely these ‘busy’ people are in the state not because they do more than me, but because they live with a backlog of things to do – just like people (the same busy people?) live with a constant negative credit balance, and only use their income to pay off their debt. But when they finish something, they don’t do some extra time to scale down their backlog, they just mop around. New deadlines arrive, and pile up. So that’s what ‘busy’ means: I have a debt of things to do that’s running after me, yet I never get on to it. I over-committed in the past, and never took the pain to renegociate my load. People are waiting for me to do things, and I’m holding them back.

But it’s not only that. “Busy” people will make you believe (maybe they actually believe) that holding back others makes them important. There’s a dark side to ‘busy’ people, so let’s be suspicious of them – and let’s not pity them too much. Let’s laugh at their scuttling around; and if something’s important, let’s keep the “busy” people away from it.

4 thoughts on ““busy”

  1. I find there are certain people who are addicted to being “busy” and they like to look down on anyone who has “free time”. As you say, it’s not that they really have more to do than anyone else; they just don’t manage their time well. But they like to give the appearance that they are extremely busy because it makes them feel important.

  2. I find the people who are truly busy are the ones who do not use the word “busy”, but can list or describe the activities that have perhaps prevented them from taking the time to answer your email or return your call. If I catch myself using the term “busy” it is invariably because I did not really want to reply to said email (or do some other task) and really have no real reason as to why it has not been completed.

  3. I think there is a strong element of peer pressure to all this busy-ness in Australia. On the one hand, the pressure to work as much as your colleagues. On the other hand, the pressure to have as little time as your friends and acquaintances do.

    When you meet someone in the street, and they have to keep going, can only blow you a kiss, because they’re so busy right now, so many projects, but let’s catch up in three weeks’ time? Or maybe in two months would be better, because they are flying to Asia soon? In those moments, it is important to be busy yourself, to be able to say that, ohh, nothing before 3 months is good for you either, because otherwise you would be living a lonely life. When you’re both blowing kisses mid-flight, you feel powerful, successful, accomplished, a superstar.

    For that reason, I think there’s an element of compulsion to a lot of this Australian busy-ness. But I had somehow overlooked it in Melbourne, until I moved back to Europe, and suddenly found everyone having a lot of time for everyone else. Beer, coffee, doesn’t matter.

    It’s nice. Nicer, even.

  4. Pingback: That’s fine | Julien Leyre

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