Put an End to Busy Culture Now

busy culture

By Yvonne Milosevic

Not that long ago, leading a life of leisure was the ultimate status symbol. Now, it’s the opposite. In today’s so-called busy culture, a person’s level of busyness signals their higher social value. After all, if you’re ultra-busy, you must be in-demand, influential, and thus winning at life.

But, studies have shown that busyness doesn’t always correlate with productivity. Our proverbial plates are so overflowing, most of us don’t even use up our annual vacation time. All this busyness can harm our relationships, health, and professional growth. Plus, it’s a sure-fire recipe for burnout.

Our environment has an outsized influence on our behavior in this area. So, curtailing busy culture will require a two-pronged approach. Managers can improve workplace culture while we make changes to create better boundaries.

Steps Managers Can Take

Work-life boundaries have blurred completely since the advent of email and smartphones. According to a recent piece by Serenity Gibbons in Harvard Business Review, “more than four-fifths of employees send work emails on weekends. Nearly six in 10 do so while on vacation, and more than half check email after 11 p.m.” Managers can break that unhealthy habit and set an example by not sending out emails outside of business hours.

Another effective strategy to counter busy culture is to focus on your core contribution, Gibbons suggests. Set an example by saying “no” to anything that doesn’t align with your primary duties.

“If it’s not a ‘hell, yeah’ it’s a ‘no’.” —Derek Sivers, co-founder of CD Baby

Until the rest of your team sees you saying “no” to secondary duties, says Gibbons, they won’t feel comfortable doing so either.

Other companies are turning to financial incentives to force employees to take time off. For example, Tech company FullContact will pay employees a $7,500 vacation stipend each year, but there’s a catch. During their vacation, employees must not: work, check work messages, or (in pre-COVID days) stay home. Gibbons writes that the company enforces the stipend through vacation photo-sharing, monitoring communication channels, and self-reporting.

busy culture

The bottom line is, managers need to start modeling these desired behaviors. When they take vacations, prioritize health, share stories about life outside of work, etc., employees feel encouraged to do likewise.  

Break Free From Busy Culture

Both individuals and companies can relieve some of this pressure by scheduling “slack time” in their calendars each week. In HBR’s Preventing Busyness from Becoming Burnout, author Brigid Schulte notes that people suck at estimating how much time they need to do things.

We run around putting out fires all day, racing to meetings, ploughing through emails, and getting to 5 or 6 p.m. with the sick realization that we haven’t even started our most important work of the day.

 During this slack time, you can finish up any projects that got delayed or took longer than predicted, Schulte explains.

Here’s another excellent tip to help us gain control: stop multitasking during leisure time. “Though research shows that we have plenty of ‘leisure time’ in our lives, we’ve become accustomed to multitasking during our downtime—meal planning while we watch television, checking our email while we’re out to dinner, watching a webinar while we’re working out,” The Muse’s Ricki Rogers explains.

All this leaves us, as Schulte puts it in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, with nothing more than “crappy bits of leisure time confetti.” Combat this pervasive problem by reserving downtime for yourself on the regular—no multitasking allowed.

Finally, our last tip for reducing busyness in your life is to reject FOMO (fear of missing out). When the coronavirus struck, almost all our voluntary activities fell by the wayside. No dinners or concerts with friends. No shunting kids to soccer tournaments on the weekend. We now realize that a lot of our lives’ busyness is driven by our own choices rather than external forces.

By becoming more selective about where to invest our energy and saying no more often, we can reclaim our focus on what really matters.