Are You Really Too Busy?

Everyone seems to be 'busy' these days. Whether you're just asking how they are or inviting them to do something, it seems to be an automatic response from some people.

Are these people really are overloaded with work all the time or is there something else going on?

I actually think a lot of people feel they need to appear as if they're 'busy' all the time, and that it's a pretty serious problem. In this post, I'll look at why people are acting that way and what they can do about it.

This isn’t a superficial post about how annoying this is though, as I feel this constant need to look busy can lead on to other serious problems. It can be bad for people’s physical and mental health and I genuinely feel it could harm our economy in future.

Before we dive into this, I think we have to start off by asking ourselves if this generation really is busier than any other before it. Despite the rise of the connected, 24 hour world around us, I honestly don't think this is the case.

I think people have always had a lot to do, it’s just that they didn’t have the opportunity to be so vocal about it. Most of us also seem to have a lot of leisure time available now as well and plenty of activities to fill it with.

We also have to accept that people do go through exceptionally busy periods in their lives, so people who say they are busy aren't always making excuses. 

It gets a little more complicated by the fact that a lot of people genuinely feel they are too busy when in reality, they're not. Let's explore some of the reasons why someone may feel they are overwhelmed.

As well as genuinely having too much work to do, people may say they are busy because:

  • They're afraid of being judged
  • They're not efficient
  • They're looking for sympathy

Let's take a close look at why these things are happening.

Why We Have to Look Busy

Being far too busy to engage with anyone else seems to a badge of honour every self-described entrepreneur or office superstar seems to have awarded themselves. This can be expressed in a various ways, from refusing simple requests for assistance to ignoring messages and invitations. 

Whenever an approach is declined, you're probably in for a performance that could be nominated for an Oscar. 

After speaking with a number of people about their work though, I think I may have a good explanation for this. After the financial crisis in 2008, a lot of companies cut down staff levels, either by redundancy or not replacing leavers, and this inevitably meant that a lot of roles were merged into others. The only problem is that workers didn't get more hours in the day. 

I honestly believe that the root cause of this constant need to look busy is a fear of not looking busy.

I think a lot of people are genuinely afraid that if they look like they have spare capacity, they may be given extra responsibilities or even worse, their role itself may come under scrutiny.

This can't be good for anyone's long-term mental health and it starts to lead us to a terrible place where looking busy is valued higher than what someone actually achieves. This sounds insane, but look around you and ask your friends what their working environment is like.

It also leads us to an even bigger problem that I'm extremely concerned about.

It shouldn't take you long to realise that dishonest people are likely to thrive in this sort of environment. When your workload is increased but your hours remain the same, it seems to me as if it's a basic choice of working smarter or cutting corners.

Anyone who's required customer service will probably know what it feel like when corners are cut. You won't receive the callback you were promised, there will be no notes of your conversation and people simply won't do what they said they would.

Cutting corners also affects the people around these individuals, as they are likely to have the blame shifted towards them when things go wrong. Delegation and verbal self-defence is often required in a professional environment, but frivolous finger pointing is something else entirely.

Rather accepting this sort of dishonest behaviour as inevitable or considering it a 'clever strategy', I think we need to look at the big picture. If everyone is spending their time at work covering their tracks, shifting responsibility and hiding what they really do, surely we end up with something like Enron, on a national scale.

There is a simple solution to this though. If people are set realistic targets, managed professionally and there are consequences for questionable behaviour, we may start to see some changes. I know this sound like an incredibly naive thing to say, but I just want to put it out there.

I'll do my best to be more practical in the next section, but I really hope you're starting to think about this.

How We Can Work Smarter  

So now we've looked at people who are genuinely busy and those that feel they need to look busy, let's examine the people who may be struggling when they don't really need to. These are the people who rarely finish on time or take enough breaks.

Let's start by going back to what I said earlier.

If it's not possible to work harder, you should think about working smarter.

A huge portion of this website is designed to help you do that, but it's probably helpful if I share a few focussed ideas here. Let's start by looking at what the to-do list of someone in this position may look like. 

Irrespective of how it's organised, it's probably an imposing list of tasks. Now I know they probably won't have time to implement all the setup hacks I can offer that could really help them out, but I could do something about the list itself.

I think it's a safe bet that someone in this position will just dive into the list, like a miner chipping away at a rock face with a pick axe. Completion will often be the only option they consider, using only the techniques they know.

Before I metaphorically hand that miner the keys to a JCB though, let's see if there's a way of reducing the amount of rock you're expected to remove. If you have a long list of jobs, can you:

  • Negotiate
  • Delegate
  • Discard
  • Prioritise
  • Combine

Let's start of with an example. You're expected to attend a critical meeting with a client that requires extensive preparation and follow-up. You've been asked to do this by your manager but someone in another part of the business has requested an urgent report relating to work you did six months ago.

Do you just exert yourself attempting to complete both of these tasks, at the same time? 

Even if you pull this off, you're unlikely to do either task to your best ability. This is where you have to remember the list above and try to change the game.

I think the trick here is to stick to the facts and stress the benefit of what you're proposing. Your managers probably won't want to hear how tired you are and how hard it is for you, but they will probably want to hear why concentrating on the meeting is likely to land a lucrative contract.

The only thing you need to consider in this sort of situation though is that you may not be seeing the big picture, and that that old report may be absolutely essential. If you're in a team though, you may be able to delegate some of the work or even combine the report with research you need to conduct for the meeting.

By now, you should start to get an idea that there are likely to be alternatives to all-out hard work that won't make you look weak.

Now we've seen that everything we're asked to do isn't necessarily set in stone, let's look at how we can get it done quicker. 

At this point, I'm sure a lot of people will simply switch off from all of this and declare that they're far too busy to even consider it. They don't have time to mess around with new ways of working, or even take time to get organised.

The problem here is that if you manage to fight your way through your workload, there'a a safe bet the work will reappear. Like most things related to personal development and productivity, if you don't change your approach, how can you expect a different result?

Do you really want to spend your time at work putting out fires and feeling awful?

I'll leave it to you to go though the site for suggestions of how you can work smarter when you have time, particularly the 'Plan and Organise' and 'Own Information' sections. All I ask you to do now though is approach your work with an open mind and keep looking for opportunities to make things more efficient.

What could be automated, what could be combined and what doesn't really need to be done?

The most important thing here is that you don't allow yourself to go it alone and be overwhelmed. You should throw out all those 'sacred cows' as well and dare to do things differently.

It's now time to look at the people who really want you to know how busy they are.

How We Can Feel Better

By now, you've probably realised that paradoxically, the fear of not being busy all the time and actually being busy all the time isn't good for us. It can have a terrible effective on our physical and mental health, but there's actually another stage that I'm a lot more concerned about. 

I'm more worried about the people who want you to know they're busy, genuinely think they are busy but in reality, really aren't that busy.

Unlike those who try to look busy to make the right impression, these people genially believe they are hard done by, and it becomes part of their story.

There's usually 'that' person in the office who's always complaining that they have too much work to do, loudly sighing all the time and generally spreading bad vibes. Some people also seem to undergo a 'Jekyll and Hyde' like transformation when they feel that things are getting on top of them.

Are You Really Too Busy

A simple request can be met with an intense emotional response that quickly turns to silence as they don their headphones and ignore you for the rest of the afternoon.

It's often really frustrating, as these people are usually really nice people the rest of the time. Worse still, you may realise that you're sometimes the one with the split personality.

This sort of thing isn't just really weird, as can soon begin to wreck relationships and remove respect.

I think it all starts when people are given something to do. They react to things they believe are problems, rather than simply responding to them.

They will probably choose to view certain instructions as being either unfair, unreasonable, unachievable or unpleasant. They may also feel that they are being singled out or being treated differently from other people.

The problem is, they rarely seem to look around and see what other people are dealing with. They will probably be unlikely to offer others support if they're ever in this situation either.

So what's wrong with people getting a little stressed every now and then?

The problem for me is that this approach is rarely restricted to work. These people are likely to start seeing themselves as victims and that will soon become part of their 'story'.

They will suddenly become 'unlucky', feel they're 'not good enough' and for them, most battles will be lost before they've even begun.

Let's go back to that responding, rather than reacting thing though, because this will help you avoid all of this.

If you react and get angry when you're given something to do you object to, you'll probably keep going through it in your mind and it's likely to take you a while before you can even get down to work. When you do, you'll probably approach it with the last type of mindset that's going to get anything done well.

At this point, you need to remember all that mindfulness stuff I talk about in the 'Clear Mind and Focus' section.

Next time you or anyone you know is in a situation like this, try to think about the following questions:

  • How will the way I'm acting be seem by others?
  • Is there any way I can raise my concerns objectively?
  • What will this response achieve?

That doesn't mean you need to join in the conversation about last night's TV or go on breaks with everyone, as deep work is often essential. You just need to make this clear in a reasonable way.

A quick tip in this situation is to try and view things in the third person, which should remove your emotional connection, and try to stay focussed on the present moment. It's also worth focussing on how you'll tackle the work rather than resisting it.

At times like this, it's worth remembering how David Allen often talks about the importance of a 'mind like water' in his book, Getting Things Done

This simple idea basically describes how if a stone is thrown into water, the response is proportionate to the impact. The water will also settle back to clear state if it's left undisturbed.

You really need to ask yourself why you would approach your work in anything other than the most effective mindset.

Finally, I need to make it clear that none of these changes will happen in an instant. Like meditation and mindfulness, it takes time to be effective but once you're aware and once you start, you're on the road to making changes.

It shouldn't just be restricted to work either, as a change of approach should lead to a more positive and constructive mindset.


Before we reach a clear conclusion, I'd just like to point out that I've presented these as three separate examples to help people think about this subject. They're clearly not a definitive explanation for every situation though and like anything related to mental health, we need to approach this subject with great care.

People can be overloaded with work and feel totally overwhelmed, so I'd feel awful if anyone took anything I'd said as an excuse to dismiss genuine appeals for help.

I wrote this piece to appeal to anyone who constantly claims they are busy to really think hard about why they are in that situation. I also wanted to give people the opportunity to help others and show them there's a better way.

So to recap, we shouldn't have to tell people we're busy all the time if we:

  • Set out to impress with achievements rather than perceptions
  • Focus on working smarter, rather and harder
  • Try to respond, rather than react to things

I fear it's either this or we get some weird Darwinian future where only those strong enough to cope with this or successfully manipulate others can get ahead in the workplace.

I hope this helped and that you'll go easier on people who keep telling you they're too busy in future. I also hope you can help them and get them back on track.

It's a great way to help people become healthier, happier and more productive.

The key thing I'd like you to take a way from this article is though is that if you're managing people or part of a team, you can help the people who always seem to be busy. I also hope this encourages you to look beyond what your stats are saying and really look at what people are actually doing. More importantly, you also need to make sure that people can actually do the things you’re asking them to get done.

If we start to resist dishonesty and the desire to cut corners as well, maybe our kids won't have to live through an economic depression.