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It seems to have become the business world’s best-loved opener: “Are you busy?”.

The question, and its many variants (“Keeping busy?”, “You must be busy?”, “I’m sure you’re under it?”, “Must be busy this time of year?”) are a go-to conversation-starter in offices, meetings and conferences.

“Are you busy?” has become the de-facto question, and ‘being busy’ the de-facto answer. We’ve got so used to talking about how busy we are that we use ‘busy-ness’ to answer all sorts of questions, even when the question asked has nothing to do with being busy.

As this blog points out, you’ll often hear people answering the neutral “How are you?” with an answer from the busy-ness scale…

  • “Good, but busy”
  • “Don’t ask”
  • “Oh, you know, keeping my head above water”
  • “So busy”
  • “Just busy”
  • “Really busy”

…whilst our mood, emotions, outlook, or anything else that actually matters, never gets a look-in. Hyper busy-ness, even full-on stress, is often viewed as a badge of honour.

We’re all just busy busy busy busy…

What does “being busy” actually mean?

Don’t get me wrong, often people just ARE busy, (or at least FEEL busy.) It’s a perfectly reasonable state to be in. And yes, our society is apparently increasingly afflicted by feeling time-poor – a modern condition – so there’s probably more busy-ness to go around.

However, often – intentionally or otherwise – we concoct or exaggerate our level of busy-ness to give the impression of being:

  • Inundated with work, because we’re just downright brilliant.
  • In possession of skills that nobody else has, and everybody else needs.
  • Full of ideas and plans that there just isn’t enough time in the day to action.
  • Proactive, productive and highly useful.

And yet, we all know that busy people can be:

  • Wasting time on ridiculous tasks (just think of the 80/20 rule.)
  • Treading water rather than achieving any kind of meaningful momentum.
  • Creating excess work for themselves in order to seem busier.
  • Suffering from actual, medical, stress.

Beyond busy-ness: establishing some new pinnacles of success

You might argue “what does it matter if people are inflating their levels of busy-ness to seem more important? What harm can it do?”

And you’d be right, except for the fact that this theme of chat establishes ‘being busy’ itself as the pinnacle of achievement. It marks out busy-ness as a goal in its own right – something we should all be aspiring to and striving for. It occludes far more important markers of success.

If we all strove for busy-ness alone, the world would be a very much more hectic place than it already is.

My suggestion? Keep your “busy-o-meter” to yourself, and don’t pry about others’ by questioning them on their busy-ness. Instead, let’s try to ask each other something with a bit more substance.

nb. I’m aware there’s another, quite distinct usage of the question “Are you busy?”. Equally perilous, this “Are you busy?” is asked by managers to their staff. It’s a catch 22. In response, do you answer a) “No, boss, I’m doing nothing, because I’m a useless, lazy employee” or alternatively b) “Yes, boss, I’m busy with important tasks and therefore have no time for whatever silly task you intend to add to my workload”. A resolution to this conundrum – evading an impossible question with an attacking answer – can be found on the Ask A Manager blog.

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