why you feel busy all the time even if you’re not, and more

Over at the Fast Track by QuickBase today, I take a look at several big work-related stories in the news right now: why you feel busy all the time even if you’re not, why it gets harder to get real feedback the more you advance in your career, and more. You can read it here.

{ 43 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous Educator*

    And not only that but data says that the people who say they’re the busiest actually aren’t.

    I’ve found this to be true. Generally the ones I’ve come across who always complain to me about how busy they are also the most chatty co-workers, and I think if they just worked instead of chatting with me about how busy they are, they wouldn’t be as “busy.” But I also understand for many people, feeling “busy” is a badge of honor and socializing with others is part of the perks of working (for me, it’s a downside, not a perk, but to each her own).

    1. Charlie*

      Every time. There’s a guy who’s in our building but not really in my office, who most everybody depends on for information and data since he’s the engineer for several remote locations. Damned near impossible to get anything of substance out of him in less than two weeks, because he’s invariably “really slammed right now,” but if you just want to shoot the breeze with a cup of coffee in your hand, wait five minutes and he’ll be there. Tremendously irritating.

      1. Boxes*

        That’s one of my coworkers too! And he also does data work. He’s constantly complaining about how much work he has to do, but he’s happy to spend 2 hours showing the same funny video to everyone on the hall. If you tell him you’re not interested or are busy doing actual work, he then gives you a lecture about how you work too hard.

        1. Charlie*

          “Well, Bob, maybe I do work too hard, but I also never have to complain about how in the weeds I am.”

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      How true this is!

      My cranky ex-work partner used to use the “busy” excuse every time I needed her to look over some of my work. Well, she was mostly busy with her MBA homework and Netflix, neither of which took precedence over actual work duties.

      Now she’s gone on to another position and I’m doing the work of two people. I’m slammed, but at least I know what I’m doing, and I know I can handle 12-hour work days no problem.

    3. Mazzy*

      Well that is true but there is also the issue of the type of work we do that came up in the article. That is one of the reasons I may sometimes feel busier than I actually am. I have alot of things to check and verify and make sure are happening, but most days, I’m not producing a specific product that I hand to my boss or a customer. It’s hard to quantify busy-ness in the information days.

      And some days I actually am very busy doing lots of reports and queries and checking things and I end up finding that everything is miraculously working fine. So even though I worked at a fast pace, my output was technically zero.

  2. Caroline*

    One of my colleagues claimed that he was too busy to do all of his work and asked for his workload to be reduced. He now has the smallest work load of all of us (and gets paid the second highest). On collaborative projects he misses deadlines all the time–to the point where I don’t think I’ve ever seen him make a deadline. He’s always saying how busy he is.

    Yet whenever I pass his cube he’s looking at facebook or other non-work sites.

    My workload is about 20% larger and I spend most of my time twiddling my thumbs with nothing to do. I’d rather be busy! It makes the day go faster.

    1. Moonsaults*

      He does it because he gets away with it. Nobody seems to be managing him, which leads to “when the cat’s away, the mice will play” mentality among someone who needs a whip cracked and cannot self direct. If he cannot handle the workload, he should not be working there, let alone being at the higher pay grade, some one just found how to skate on by and get well compensated for it.

      I have seen this happen before, someone suddenly decides that they’re going to check out. He probably worked his way up and then burnt out, which I can sympathize with but as a money and time waste my teeth are grinding thinking about it from a numbers standpoint.

  3. JLK in the ATX*

    I remember the day I didn’t have anything to do… it was like the eye of a storm and it was very calm, surreal. I cleaned my desk, reviewed my files and even changed out some wall pictures. I didn’t offer to help anyone do anything either. Kept this gem to myself.

    I remember the day I had a panic attack after viewing all the to-do’s on my white board (I was the only non-profit staff member with 12 hats). One of my staff found me bent over my legs and offered me a cigarette to calm down (I don’t smoke and didn’t then either) which was funny since she was on the patch, at the time.

    Like Anonymous Educator, I don’t like wearing a ‘busy badge’ either and hate feeling that I have to.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      Like Anonymous Educator, I don’t like wearing a ‘busy badge’ either and hate feeling that I have to.

      It’s definitely a personality/preference thing, though. I was just listening this morning to Mark Maron interviewing Katie Couric, and Katie Couric said she deliberately procrastinates, because she likes the adrenaline rush of trying to do something in a time crunch. So if she knows, for example, that it will take about an hour to get ready for something, she’ll decidedly wait until there’s only a half hour left and then try to get it all done in that short period of time.

      I suspect for some folks who wear the “busy badge,” it’s probably a similar attitude. Getting it all done immediately isn’t fun and doesn’t bring that adrenaline rush. Chatting about how busy you are and browsing Facebook and doing whatever… and then suddenly having to buckle down to meet a quick deadline brings an intense urgency they must enjoy.

      1. justsomeone*

        For some of us, the time crunch helps with creativity. I’ve found that some of my best pieces of writing have come from when I felt I didn’t have enough time. Part of it was adrenaline, and part of it was wanting to make something that didn’t “look” like last minute work. It’s immensely satisfying having such quality come from that burst of work.

        However, I am picky about /where/ I apply my “procrastination punch.” There are lots of tasks where it’s definitely better to be ahead of deadline.

      2. Charlotte Collins*

        This is common among people who do creative work. However, years ago I remember somebody pointing out that in general, even though you *feel* like you’re procrastinating, you actually are working out problems/solutions and how to do something in your head/with your notes/etc. before you get down to actually producing something that other people can see.

        1. Charlie*

          I view this with extreme skepticism, and I say that as a guy who’s commenting on the internet instead of working right now. I don’t think procrastination is productive, and I don’t think I’m subconsciously working while I mess with my phone or screw around on Facebook; I think I’m chasing instant gratification and indulging my avoidant tendencies. There have been many times when I’m tired and stressed out and I knock off work half an hour early, take a walk, get a good night of sleep, and deal with my issue on a fresh head, but I think that’s different from procrastination.

          1. Cat*

            In general yes, though I had an interesting experience recently where I had been thinking about a legal pleading for quite some time but didn’t have a chance to draft it until shortly before the due date (not because of Facebook but because of client approvals). When I finally did draft it, I was amazed at how quickly and easily it went compared to the norm. Sometimes your mind really is working on things behind the scenes.

            1. Charlotte Collins*

              The comment I was referring to was specifically about writing, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all writing process out there. This also is something artists that I’ve known have done. A lot of time their work doesn’t look like work to those who don’t know much about art. So, that’s why I pointed out it’s creative work specifically.

              If I, say, have data to gather, waiting to do it, just makes the process more hectic and less efficient. Thinking about it really hard instead of just doing it doesn’t help me at all.

        2. Anonymous Educator*

          I think you’re describing something different entirely, though, Charlotte Collins. Katie Couric didn’t say “I’m using this extra time to work things out in my head, so I can be more productive during that half hour.” Her point was she was deliberately not working until the last half hour so she could get the adrenaline rush.

          Sounds as if you have a perfectly legitimate but completely different approach. Work doesn’t have to be tangible product. It can definitely be planning/thinking, too.

          1. Charlotte Collins*

            I agree it’s different, and that adrenaline rush just for the sake of one doesn’t sound like a great idea to me. (I used to teach college students, and I hope some of those C students at least enjoyed the adrenaline rush they got from waiting to do their work.) However, I was just pointing out that for some people that kind of thing does spur them to do better work (of a certain type).

            1. Anonymous Educator*

              I used to be a teacher, and I fully agree. For 99% of the people who procrastinate, the last-minute nature of the work will show up in how shoddy the product is. Clearly, it hasn’t hurt Katie Couric’s career, though, so she may be an exception (or she might be exaggerating how much she procrastinates).

          2. Brock*

            I agree that ‘not actively working’ while letting all the issues sort of compost and germinate in your head can work really well for some people and some tasks, and I’m no stranger to the procrastinate/adrenaline rush myself….

            …but I think for some people, especially bright, perfectionist people, it can also be a way to stay a bit narcissistic about your skills. If you happen to hit the flow in the adrenaline phase, then you look brilliant, but if you do a mostly-okay job you always have the excuse, “Well of course it wasn’t my best work, there wasn’t enough time!” That way you can usually avoid evaluation on your actual best work.

    2. Chaordic One*

      This reminds me of a day when things seemed quiet and I actually came close to getting caught up and even managed to squeeze in some filing (which was what I always put off until last). Then it occurred to me to check the fax machine. It was out of paper and after I reloaded it, it printed steadily for the next hour. (We used the fax machine quite a bit up until the last year or so to transmit documents with employees’ personal information because we didn’t have a secure file transfer system until just before I left, and we were afraid to use email because of it being easily hacked. Hackers could then steal someone’s identity.)

      So much for being caught up. But it was a nice feeling for the half a day or so while it lasted.

  4. Moonsaults*

    My previous job was originally one of those “so busy, cannot keep up” jobs for everyone else who tried to do it. The person who trained me was pretty good at it but still seemed to “never catch up”. So it lead my boss to think the job was much harder and more intense than it really was. I swooped in there and had so much time on my hands because I just got stuff done as it happened, not letting it pile up.

    The “busiest” people are the ones who don’t understand priorities and who don’t ever seem to want to be at work I’ve noticed.

    Sometimes I think it’s because I’m a workaholic but really, I know it’s just from people who would rather be somewhere else and they know saying “oh I’m so busy” is going to get less pushback than saying “I have a TON of time on my hands, wanna load me up on more projects?”

    Everyone assumes I’m busy and will apologize for “interrupting me” when they call, then be shocked when I say “My job is to answer this phone, so you are not interrupting me, you’re my priority now.” *head desk*

    1. Ros*

      In addition to not letting stuff pile up: figure out how to automate stuff.

      Combine 3 reports into 1, automate some of it to remove a day’s worth of manual data manipulation every day, etc… and then all of a sudden what took your predecessor 3 days a week takes you 3 hours, but no one believes it, so… 2 free days.

      1. Moonsaults*

        Absolutely. I realized after I took my first job that a lot of things just weren’t being done efficiently at all. I was able to trim things down and combined with my fast typing speed, nothing really piled up around me.

        I also cleaned up the books so much the CPA noticed, I trimmed their workload down too. Doing things right is also a huge factor as well it turns out.

      2. paul*

        Amen. When I took over my job it was about 50 hours a week, but after a few years, it’s more like 30 hours of actual work a week. Becausse I got faster and automated what I could.

    2. That Would Be a Good Band Name*

      And I think some people are just better at handling a higher volume of work. (I am one of these.) I share an office with the person that had my job before me and I’ve had to resist asking her what she did all day. I asked for more duties (and received them) and I’m still having trouble filling the day. I’ve checked and rechecked that I’m not missing something that I’m supposed to be doing and that is not the issue. I just do this job in much less time than my predecessor.

  5. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

    I think most of my feeling of business stems from the constant switching between projects. I’m currently splitting my work time between three programs, and I’ve been surprised at how much I feel like I have more work (some of that is true, some just comes from the feeling of lots of balls in the air). Must be hard to be a freelancer!

    1. A*

      I understand exactly what you’re talking about. It’s that whole concept of having a finite amount of mental energy.

    2. designbot*

      Same here. Sometimes I manage to get a minute of calm where I go, “oh, I’m actually ok right now. Cool!” but most of the time it feels like I’m constantly having to switch my attention from one project to the other depending on who’s making noise at the moment. I think this will be able to get better in the future but for now I’m still handling projects started by my predecessor, who didn’t always set things up for success IMHO. Also when you have multiple projects it can be hard to avoid concurrent deadlines–I’m carrying I think 8 projects right now and trying to stagger all of the deadlines is just impossible, especially when each client is supposed to think they’re my only, or at least my most important, one.

  6. Outside Earthling*

    I listened to the BBC Radio 4 programmes by Oliver Burkeman and they were absolutely fascinating. I may listen again. They can be found by googling ‘Oliver Burkeman is Busy’, which is the name of the series. I’m not sure if BBC Radio is accessible outside the U.K though.

  7. FD*

    When people talk about ‘being busy’, they generally mean feeling there’s more to do than time to do it in–i.e. they can’t get everything done.

    In my experience, this always means something’s wrong, and it can be helpful to frame it that way to yourself.

    1. Your priorities are wrong. This often affects overachiever types–they try to treat everything as a top priority, and it means that projects that aren’t important can eat up too much of the time they need for things that are important.
    2. You don’t know how to work efficiently. This can affect anyone, but a good way to tell is if a particular task takes you longer than it takes others, or if you seem to keep getting tripped up by details you didn’t expect.
    3. Others’ expectations are out of whack. This often affects dysfunctional workplaces, and can lead to assuming employees can do more than they really can. It also can happen if a manager doesn’t really understand what goes into a project (such as assuming that a complicated design project can be done in a day).

    I’m prone to business, so I find it can help for me to check in on which combination of these factors is causing the issue, when I’m feeling too busy.

    1. Anonymous Educator*

      I mean, #3 is legitimate busy-ness, though! I had a job once that was actually about four full-time jobs, and my boss (head of the organization) expected me to do all four of them. So instead of doing all four well, I just did three semi-competently and one badly… and then I quit.

      1. FD*

        Yes, absolutely! My point is that if you’re ‘busy’, in this sense, something has gone wrong! It’s helpful to identify if what’s wrong is the way you’re working, in the organization, or in a mix of the two.

        If you can work out what’s going wrong with how you try to work, that can help you feel you have more controlled. In some cases, if the organization’s expectations are out of whack, you can help them re-adjust. Other times, it can just be helpful to understand that they have unreasonable expectations. You can then decide if you want to live with those expectations or look elsewhere for work.

      2. Chaordic One*

        I found myself in that situation when the job changed over time with a lot of extra tasks being added to it. I ended up being demoted, but the next three replacements all quit within a period of seven months, so I sort of feel somewhat vindicated. (It wasn’t that I was incompetent after all, it was that the job expectations really were unrealistic.)

        After that, the department supervisor rewrote the job description and reassigned certain job duties to other people who seemed to have the time to take them on.

  8. Amber Rose*

    It’s true that I feel busy when the work items and emails pile up even though logically I’ve got maybe a day of backlog after a week of not doing the work, after which i’ll be back to being bored a lot.

    I have been busy the last two weeks for real and it’s been a nice change of pace. Nobody bothers me and I just listen to music and hammer away at my project. I wish I had a job that was always like this.

  9. NJ Anon*

    I’m super busy and find time to chat to keep my sanity! I need to get up from my desk and computer and find some human interaction. (Or read AAM!). I can’t go at 110% all day every day.

    1. Charlie*

      And how do the humans you go interact with feel about this? Maybe you’re conscientious of this, but I find that people who need to chat to keep their sanity tend to assume that everyone else feels the same way, at the same time….

      1. Anonymous Educator*


        Please make sure the humans you seek out are seeking you out as well and not just being polite.

    2. Moonsaults*

      This strongly depends on your version of having human interaction as well.

      If you need to get up from your desk to use the restroom and get another cup of coffee every few hours, that’s exactly how most of us expect anyone to work. If I’m doing data entry for hours, I do want to get up, rest my eyes and take a stretch. That five minutes is a really nice reset.

      However there are people who need these mini-breaks every half an hour and that’s over the top.

      Also in the case that you need more interaction with humans than a desk job that has you doing tedious things offers, you are in the wrong line of work :(

  10. Lynne*

    Sometimes you’re busy because your area is just super understaffed for the responsibilities you have. I started complaining…strategically…about how busy we are, when I took over my department, because the previous manager, though I loved her to death, tended never to show any sign of stress or overloadedness even when handed extra work, which I think gave some people a mistaken impression of just how busy we were and are. I would say we’re, oh, at least two years behind where we should be, project-wise. It’s frustrating when we can’t fulfil perfectly reasonable requests in a timely way, or when I have to say to a suggested project, “That makes a lot of sense and would be a great initiative, but realistically we can’t start on it any time soon.”

    I’ve been making progress in reassigning staff and in getting more cooperation from other departments in sharing work, but I *have* to talk about how busy we are to get there. And it is a slower process than I’d like.

    Just wanted to say that complaining about being busy doesn’t always mean inefficiency or laziness (at least, in *my* opinion I’m pretty efficient – I have a good mind for improving/automating processes. And I focus pretty hard on work while I’m there, too. No Facebooking here!) I am not complaining for the sake of getting sympathy or trying to impress people. I’m doing it because I want to actually change the way we’re allocating resources within the organization. And I don’t think I can do that, politically speaking, unless I use slightly emotionally tinged language and project a certain amount of stress when I talk about this (my previous manager would say we were busy, but in a very logical, unstressed way. And it was true! But some people won’t believe you without the emotion.)

    (Does that sound manipulative? Maybe it is, a little, but I’m not making anything up, and I genuinely think this is a staffing issue the organization really needs to address for the sake of its own long term success. I think of it as playing politics.)

Comments are closed.