Why we're replacing busy with mindful

“Let me check my schedule.”

Last week, some coworkers and I were invited to an event at a pop-up food vendor near our office. When it came time to pack up and leave, only one of us made it out the door at 5:00. I stayed behind with a few others to, you know, finish up ‘one more thing.’ There were still emails to answer and calls to make and before we knew it, we were tucking into a whole new day’s work.

If it wasn’t for the janitor suggestively vacuuming under my feet and ‘accidentally’ unplugging my power strip, I might never have gone home for the night. Only one of us made it to the tasting—and it wasn’t me.

That’s pretty much how it’s been since I moved to New York. When a friend asks to grab drinks after work, I have to “check my schedule” first. Somebody even asked me out on a date recently. Instead of saying “Oh my gawd, YES!!!” I caught myself leafing through my calendar for an elusive opening. Who says romance is dead?

Just like the food tasting, I never went on that date. Instead, I suggested we meet the next week, when work slowed down. But work never really slows down, does it?

It turns out, I’ve been playing along with an increasingly widespread American phenomenon: complaining all the time about being busy. Busyness is the new showing off.

A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, sought to demonstrate how “displaying one’s busyness at work” and “lack of leisure time” is perceived as a symbol of status by others. The studies found that those who “display their busyness” are regarded as being more desired, more valuable, and more ambitious—especially in the job market.

I noticed a lot of people I follow on social media sounded just like me, constantly complaining about working late, or being “desperately in need of a vacation” while rarely, if ever, taking one. Even when we do manage to take a vacation, we’re still online checking emails or answering Slack messages, letting everyone know we’re still “totally available.” This is especially prevalent in start-up culture and it’s the main reason many progressive companies are now rolling back their lofty policy of “unlimited vacation.”

Quantity Over Quality?

The problem with this misplaced sense of value is that, according to Meredith Fineman of the Harvard Business Review, “it’s harming how we communicate, connect, and interact.” Saying you’re busier than another person is like saying you’re “more important,” or that your time is “more valuable,” notes Fineman. When you brag about how busy you are without acknowledging the other person’s schedule, you’re putting yourself on a pedestal above them, thus feeding back into the idea that you’re somehow more desired.

The important thing to note about busy schedules is that often, they’re self-imposed. Megan Wycklendt, of the Washington Post, notes being busy is a choice. “When I complain about how busy I am, it is as if someone put all these things on my plate without my approval,” she says. When we complain about being “busy,” we’re not outwardly acknowledging the fact that we’ve opted into the “busyness.”

Despite significant research showing that quality of work declines after a number of hours, we continue to push our minds and bodies to the limit, playing into our cultural admiration of “busyness.” Tony Schwartz, also of the Harvard Business Review, believes we “unwittingly train ourselves to ignore signals from our body that we need rest.” We dull physical restlessness with caffeine, override our difficulty concentrating with sugar, and rely on our own stress hormones to provide us with “short bursts of energy” that ultimately leave us drained and scattered. While it’s tempting to brag about working a 15-hour work day, the reality is that your work probably wasn’t so great.

Replacing Scattershot With Mindful Living.

A crucial step in emphasizing the quality of work (as opposed to the sheer amount of it, or number of hours put into it) is creating a culture where people feel empowered to do their best work and take breaks as they see fit, as well as feeling encouraged to take time off if their goals are met. In order to do this, we must adjust the general cultural perception.

In Italy, for example, reasonable hours and leisure time are correlated with higher status. “Rather than associating long hours of work with an aspirational lifestyle,” the report reads, “[Italian] respondents associate it with “the necessity to support [one’s] family” or “because [one] is forced by circumstances.” Italians believe if you’re working long hours, it’s because you don’t necessarily have a choice, and that what you do during your off time is just as important as what you do when you’re clocked in—maybe even more important.

To shift the general cultural perception, however, you need to shift your working culture as well. While it’s easy to add “start-up benefits” to a contract, it’s important your company draws clear boundaries and follows through on the message behind them—that employee satisfaction is most valued. Nap pods and haircuts often mean you’re spending more time at work, not less. As Fortune states, “Great workplaces offer employees equitable compensation, training, and opportunities to grow,” which all make a company more desirable to a potential employee. And when employee retention is valued at a company, great work follows.

Now, How About That Happy Hour?

When it comes to accomplishing a personal best in a reasonable amount of time, time management is key. I’ve started taking unproductive meetings over email instead. Now, when I’ve set aside 30 minutes for a task, I give myself the full 30 minutes and then move on. Respecting the time I’ve carved out for myself—whether for work or for play—is not easy. But the refreshed Monday version of me probably knows better than the sleep-deprived Thursday me who just wants to get to ‘Inbox Zero.’ Whether it’s getting outside the office with our team or a solo date with a book, I’m looking for ways to live into these changes.

While you may not be able to reduce how busy you are, you can take steps from employee to employer to refocus how you spend your time, respecting the boundaries between work and play, and finding more balance. Don’t wait for the sea-change, start with you. You got this.

About the author:
Sam Dilling is a writer and editor living in New York City. She covers mental, sexual, and physical health, among other topics. You can follow her at @knucklesamwitch on Twitter.