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The Real Reason We Brag About Being So Busy

10/05/2016 14:44 | Updated 10 May 2016

"Life is what happens when you are making other plans" - John Lennon

'Sorry, I can't. I'm just too busy'.

How often have you heard that in the last few weeks. I'm guessing at least a few times.

'Busy'. It's become the default response when anyone asks you how you're doing. A boast disguised as a complaint - look how important I am.

How busy are you really though? Do we need to sleep with a Blackberry under the pillow or should we let ourselves switch off? Just where is all this 'busy-ness' coming from?

Everyone else is busy...

"Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place" - The Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland

We've reached a stage where being busy has become a goal. To say that 'I'm busier than you are' means 'I'm more important, my time is more valuable'. It's a new status we shoot for, a goal that shows us that we're on the right track, the barometer by which we judge our impending success.

The Red Queen Hypothesis provides an interesting perspective here. This is an evolutionary hypothesis that explores an organism's need to constantly adapt, evolve and proliferate both to gain an advantage and to survive against ever-evolving competition in an ever-changing environment.

In a similar way, we're under social pressure to keep working to get that competitive advantage over "the other guy". Sporting heroes like Jerry Rice advocate constant hard work. There's no time for rest. While you're sleeping, "the other guy" is working. The answer, stop sleeping, work harder!

Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, recently admitted that no university would employ him in today's academic system because he wouldn't be considered 'productive' enough.

Today's academics are expected to churn out research, to constantly be 'busy'. Despite his groundbreaking findings, Higgs believes that he wouldn't have fitted this new model of academia, the new model of 'busy-ness'.

We want to be busy...

How much does our happiness depend on being busy? Interesting findings from the Journal of Happiness shows that Americans work 50% harder than the majority Europeans.

The elusive 'American Dream' deserves the blame. Americans are happy to live to work, prepared to suffer now so that at some point they can be comfortable. Europeans, by contrast, see work as part of their lives, not the dominant factor.

It's not only Americans that are constantly looking for the blueprint for success. We all want to know whether we should wake up earlier, what we should eat for breakfast.

How many articles have you seen that talk about the work habits of famous CEOs? They always seem impossibly busy - is this the answer?

Even our leisure time is invaded. There are always books to read, hours to be spent at the gym, languages to be learned - idle seconds feel like precious time slipping away. We must pack every minute with activities - YOLO.

The irony is we are always looking for ways to become more productive. A simple Amazon search offers 44,930 different 'productivity books' - full of rituals that promise to help us take control, to help us master our daily routine, to help us get on top of the 'busy-ness' that we constantly seek.

It's easy to be busy...

The problem? It's technology makes it so easy to be busy. Next time you're waiting for a train take a moment to look up and down the platform. I guarantee 90% of people will be glued to their smartphones.

The boundary between work and leisure has become far more fluid. Nowadays, there's no excuse not to deal with emails, documents and texts on the go - it's hard to genuinely switch off.

Some of the greatest ideas that we have developed have come as a direct result of not being busy. Think Einstein, the underachiever working in a patent office with too much time to think, and the theory of relativity. There is genuine value in having this extra time to think.

Bertrand Russell's amusing essay 'In Praise of Idleness' (well worth a read) extols the value of a 4 hour day and the inherent advantages to all levels of society. This could be a step too far, but we should definitely think about putting the iPhone down for a moment.

The dangers of being busy...

We rarely stop to think about the toll that all this 'busy-ness' is taking on our body. Are we really productive for the 15 hour stints that we boast to friends about? When does our concentration begin to wane?

The problem is that we're graded on hours in the office not hours of productivity. People leave jackets on the backs of their chairs overnight to suggest an all-nighter.

Instead, we should focus on the amount that actually get's done - despite it's rapid growth Facebook still prides itself on the fact that it pushes two releases every day.

Let's not forget the health argument. Constant, cortisol inducing stress levels do little for our long term health prospects and being 'constantly busy' doesn't tend to lead to a strong family life.

Taking time off increases productivity and lets us establish important connections with family and friends. It's safe to say that we should all focus on being a little less busy sometimes!

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