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Balancing act: Do you think busyness is a virtue?

Unfortunately, busyness has become such a badge of honor that we hear about it often. But what does it really mean when someone tells you he or she is busy?
Unfortunately, busyness has become such a badge of honor that we hear about it often. But what does it really mean when someone tells you he or she is busy?

It's annual budget preparation time at the company where I work, as we operate on a July-June fiscal year.

For middle managers like me, this means that our normally busy schedules — working with our teams, attending meetings and developing our own projects — are even more hectic.

It's exhausting, really, trying to do effectively all of my normal tasks while also developing a strategy statement for my department and figuring out the details of my budget spreadsheet for the upcoming fiscal year.

I'm just so busy that ... wait a minute. Are you even paying attention to what you're reading? You're not, are you? What's the matter? Don't you like hearing about how busy I am?

Of course you don't. But chances are, you have conversations like this with people at the office every day. And you probably don't enjoy them much.

Unfortunately, busyness has become such a badge of honor that we hear about it often. But what does it really mean when someone tells you he or she is busy?

Janet Choi, the chief creative officer at iDoneThis, recently addressed this question in a blog post on the company's site. I highly encourage you to give it a read, as I think you'll find it interesting.

Choi says in the post that people who constantly talk about how busy they are "sound like buzzing busy signals. And when you start sounding like an appliance, it makes it hard to connect with you. ...

"Likewise, going on about how busy you are isn’t conversation and doesn’t lead anywhere — except making your conversation partner bored, or worse, peeved. People who act super busy send the same message, making time spent with them never feel quite whole.

"Interestingly, I find that most people who are legitimately occupied — with their work, or family, or art, or what-have-you — rarely play the 'too busy' card, or go out of their way to make time for meaningful connection exactly because they’ve been busy."

I really like what Choi is saying here, and reading the blog post reminded me of the busiest person I know: my wife.

I've written before about how busy my wife is. She wears so many hats and plays so many roles that I get confused just trying to keep track of all of them.

Not only is she the mother of four active children — she's constantly driving them to piano practice and baseball or softball games, helping them with homework and teaching them basic lessons about life — but she's also the co-president of the PTA at our elementary school and leads the group for young women in our church congregation.

However, I can't remember hearing her complain about being too busy to do something. In fact, from my perspective, she seems to go out of her way to be even busier.

If someone needs a child picked up from school, she volunteers to do it. If a teacher doesn't have time to prepare a science lesson or teach a physical education class, she develops a lesson on her own and then delivers it to the children. If she sees an injustice that needs to be rectified, she leads the fight against it.

Am I making her sound a bit like a superhero? Perhaps. But maybe that's because I think she is a superhero!

I occasionally get frustrated with her superhero tendencies. I hate to admit it, but I sometimes wish she would tell people she's too busy to help them. After all, she could legitimately do so, in my opinion.

But that's not in her nature. She's the kind of person Choi talks about who goes out of her way to make meaningful connections.

I, on the other hand, have been guilty of playing the busy card. In fact, I probably do it too often.

Choi writes that, when people ramble on about being too busy, they're often engaging in doublespeak. She suggests that what they're really saying is that they matter, or that they're "super-important."

Others may use their claims of busyness as an excuse, Choi writes. "This is one of the easiest outs for stuff I don't want to do," such people are saying. "Alternatively, I've spent a lot of time being distracted or stuck, but this excuse allows me to feel OK with it."

Those who complain loudly about being "crazy busy" also may be saying they're afraid, Choi writes. Or, perhaps worst of all, they may be feeling guilty.

"There’s fulfilling, meaningful stuff that I actually do want to do but I can rationalize it away instead of confronting challenges or changing direction," Choi writes that this latter group is saying. "Alternatively, I think being busy is such a valuable quality that I’ll overbook myself to the point where I feel guilty for not getting to everything or for spending time on anything that doesn’t fit into a limited definition of 'productive.'"

I know people who are clearly saying all of these things when they tell me they're busy. Do you?

But if the trouble begins with "the worship of busyness," as Choi writes, what can we do about it? How can we fill our time with meaning instead of just filling our time?

Choi has some ideas about that, too, but I'd like to hear from you before talking about them. Do you ever catch yourself prattling on about how busy you are? What are you really saying to those who hear you? What have you done to combat this problem, or what do you think could help?

Please let me know, and I'll share some of your ideas when I revisit this issue in a future column.

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