Amy Poehler defines hell as being forced to listen to someone else recount her workout. I define hell as being forced to listen to two people compete over who is busier.
It starts innocently enough, with someone airily mentioning how busy she is, what with her 5 classes, 6 clubs, 2 jobs, and 17 internship applications. The person sitting to her left will then jump in with a brief account of everything that he is expected to do—6 classes, 4 clubs, 3 jobs, and 20 internship applications.
“Did I say 17 internships?” the first one will cut in, this time on the defensive. “I meant 24. My bad.”
It’s not long before everyone in the immediate vicinity is drawn into the busy-off, a competition over who’s doing the most, who’s accomplishing the most, and who has the most crowded schedule. You’re meant to act bewildered yet pleased by all you have to do; you’re meant to relish in rushing from one thing to another, to brag about falling into bed at 3:30 a.m. We all do it—compete in the busy-off, that is—even those of us who think we’re above it. Blame it on the Protestant work ethic, or blame it on the capitalistic character of the United States; no matter what you blame it on, being busy and productive means being respected, so suddenly everyone is as busy as a bumblebee.
“The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game,” writes Hanna Rosin in “You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are,” published in Slate Magazine in 2014.
Busyness—and the discussion about it—has been on the upswing since the 1960s. In “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” Brigid Schulte introduces us to Ann Burnett, an anthropologist who since the 1960s has been collecting holiday letters, “which serve as an excellent anthropological record of how families choose to present themselves.”
According to Burnett, words and phrases such as “hectic,” “whirlwind,” “consumed,” “crazy,” “hard to keep up with it all,” and “on the run” have entered the holiday card lexicon with a vengeance. One family went so far as to describe its members as “crumpled heaps” on their bedroom floors when each day is done. The fact that this was featured on a holiday card—a known tool for bragging—is curious and more than a little troubling. When did it become enviable to be a crumpled heap on your bedroom floor?
Maybe, though, there is some glamour in being a crumpled heap, defeated by your own daily schedule: it implies that you’re doing stuff. After all, you must be if you’re ending each day as a crumpled heap, right? Frenzied work, constant activity, and countless tasks: these are ways to combat any impressions of laziness, ways to show a full life, and ways to prove that this full life is meaningful and exciting.
It’s become a reflex that permeates many smaller social interactions, and not just holiday cards. Imagine that an acquaintance spots you on a deserted pathway. You brace yourself for an awkward, cringe-worthy exchange (if you’re like me), or a fun little nugget of a conversation (if you have social graces).
“How’s it going?” the acquaintance asks casually, adjusting the straps on her backpack.
“Oh, it’s good. Busy,” you say, even though you were planning to go back to your room and knit while listening to the Beach Boys for four hours.
The acquaintance nods with widened, understanding eyes. “Oh, me too,” she says. “This semester is totally crazy.”
Then it’s over. An automatic conversation taken care of.
But maybe it’s not entirely, or at least not only, automatic. We are college students, after all. We all have a decent amount of homework, many of us play sports, a good majority are involved in clubs and activities, a sizable number work one or more jobs on campus, and some of us even maintain social lives. We have a lot going on.
But I would argue that using busyness as a get-out-of-jail-free card is getting out of hand. Didn’t do the reading? I was busy. Didn’t respond to an email? Oh my gosh, I’ve been so busy! Shirked club responsibilities? I’m so sorry, it’s just that I’m so, so busy!!!!! Being busy is a heuristic, an easy shortcut that is comprehensible to everyone and allows us to avoid going deeper than an admission of how much stuff there is to do—stuff that does not include awkward conversations or responding to emails or showing up on time for meetings. Being busy is the perfect excuse, the universal conversation topic. But claiming to be busy, even when it’s founded in truth, and even though it is convenient, is debilitating.
By telling ourselves that we’re frenzied all the time, we tend to believe it. As a result, we let ourselves off the hook in countless ways. We hold ourselves to a lower standard when it comes to school, to sports, to clubs, to creative projects, to our health. We let ourselves be bowled over by the amount of stuff to do, and we waste time fretting about and discussing it all.
And besides the fact that it’s annoying to listen to, the busy-off fuels the fire of anxiety over not doing enough. By competing over who’s busier, or even by ceaselessly talking about how much there is to do in general terms, we’re encouraging ourselves and our friends to keep it up. Being busy isn’t necessarily an illusion, but let’s be honest with ourselves: we’re really not as busy as we say we are, nor is the need to talk constantly about how much we’re doing purely as an opportunity to vent stress.
But there’s hope for us yet. Rosin assures us that when being “busy” gets in the way of doing actual work, we can simply remind ourselves of how much time we have.
“The answer to feeling oppressively busy . . . is to stop telling yourself that you’re oppressively busy, because the truth is that we are all much less busy than we think we are,” Rosin says.
Keeping a diary of what you do during the day will make it abundantly clear how much time you have. But maximizing time—and finding spots to schedule in leisure—isn’t the only benefit of recognizing the reality of how busy you are. Consequences of thinking we’re busier than we actually are include stress and exhaustion, and it even perpetuates the damaging “conviction that the ideal worker is one who is available [to work] at all times.”
If you keep your little log and realize that you really are as busy as you tell yourself, your friends, and your professors, then maybe it’s time to consider dropping some things from your schedule, or look into strategies to minimize procrastination and work smarter rather than harder. That, or stop complaining about it, because nobody has the time to hear it.
Jenny Davis is a member of the Class of 2017.