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The "Busy" Ideology

I've read a couple of very good pieces on the concept of 'busy' over the past week. The first is Scott Berkun's post on the cult of busy; the second is the post that inspired it, Marissa Bracke on why she stopped working with busy people and why busy is a cop-out.

(from Flickr user funkandjazz)

To me, the key point is that 'busy' is a relative, not an absolute state of being. Most people are not inherently busy. People make themselves busy and then they expect their 'busyness' to matter to other people. It doesn't. People typically aren't impressed by busy. People get annoyed by busy.

Is it true that many people have a lot of stuff on their plates? Absolutely! But having a lot on their plate doesn't make them busy. Deciding that they are going to let the things on their plate dominate their life and relationships is what makes people busy.

One of my favorite all-time colleagues made a great point on this topic that I've never forgotten. Nobody - not a client, not a boss, not a friend - is ever so busy that they can't take 30 second to call, text or email you and let you know that they acknowledge your existence. If someone really does have a lot on their plate, that's understandable, but that doesn't render them incapable of sending a quick email or voicemail to say that they got your message and will be in touch on whatever day they can make some room on that plate. It's something else entirely when a person blows you off for an entire week and then when you finally hear from them they drop the "oh sorry, I've been so busy" bomb on you.

OK, or imagine this... you find a mistake on your monthly bank statement. You get on the phone and they put you on hold for two hours. When the rep finally takes your call, she says, "sorry, I've been really busy this afternoon." Are you impressed? Are you even appeased? Hell no!

I don't know why the idea exists that people are impressed by each others' busyness. I couldn't feel more strongly the other way. When I want to interact with someone, do business with someone, make friends with someone, etc. I don't want to wait weeks between messages because of their 'busyness'. Why would I want to deal with someone who is so busy that they literally won't give me any time of day?

When someone drops 'busy' on me, I typically conclude one of a few things:

They are horrible with time management. The reason I didn't hear back from them for a week is because they are terrible at managing their time. It took them an entire week to get to the point where they realized they need to get back to me. That's just poor skill.

They have misallocated priorities. Maybe they do have a lot on their plate, but they put me way down on the priority list. That makes me feel like they don't really care about me and that I wasn't good enough to be part of their 'busyness'.

They need an excuse. They blew me off for a week and they don't have a good reason for it, so they use busy. It's the perfect excuse. I can't really challenge it, and they don't really need to do anything to prove it. They say 'busy' and I'm just supposed to accept it at face value.

The game has changed. The days of 'oh my roommate never gave me the message' or 'I was away from my desk all week' are over. I know that people get email on their cell phones now. I know that people sleep with their Blackberries because they're so addicted to them. I know that people spend hours on Facebook and Twitter every single day. I'm not impressed with busy people. Quite the opposite, really. I like the interact with people who can give me some time of day and who are up-front about the things they really do have on their plates. This stuff is really not that hard.

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