The business of busyness and how to better manage it.

I once wrote an article for a glossy women’s magazine, on the topic of busyness. That, in itself, is ironic. I’m the queen of not taking my own advice.

Since starting this article, I’ve thought:

“I wonder if anyone liked my last Facebook pic. Better check; there could be something urgent I need to know about. Nope? Okay, Twitter…” Where I watch videos posted by everyone I know, check every link with the potential to interest me and then head to Instagram, in case there’s an earth-shattering baby bat there. By the time I’m done, an hour has passed and I’ve achieved nothing. But I know all about Bernie’s mittens.

What’s the social media paradox?

Because the internet shares the same space as my actual work, the temptation to time-waste gets stronger every day. And I delude myself that my time-wasting is still work.

For me, online time-wasting feels ‘work-ish’ largely because social media is the most readily available way for me to procrastinate. My brain knows it should be focused elsewhere, but it craves something less pressured. Something lighter. As a break. And then I delude myself about how long I actually spend doing ‘nothing much’ online.

“People estimate their [social media use] as being much lower than it is, because it’s designed to feel like five minutes,” says Michael Heppell, success coach. “You wouldn’t go on otherwise.” In fact, the average time a South African spends on Facebook is 12.5 hours per month, with 23% of users logging in at least five times per day.

‘Headless chicken’? Not a good look.

Many of us get huge personal satisfaction from moaning about how busy we are. It’s a competitive world, and busyness can drive self-worth in a host of ways.

Alexandra Franzen, US communication expert, says, “If you’re ‘successful’ — by the conventional standards of wealth, visibility and impact – you must be bleary-eyed and delirious with busyness. How else could you, y’know, achieve anything?” In short, we often try to justify chronic busyness as a measure of our dedication and effectiveness.

According to Sophie Licht, Joburg business coach, we adopt the “languaging” of busyness to make us feel important. Especially when we use social media. If everyone around us is ‘swamped’, what does it mean for our success if we don’t look as busy?

We pretend that we’re multi-tasking.

“I believe [being busy] is connected to a feeling of being in control,” says Grace Harding, Ocean Basket’s people and company leader. “Life can be overwhelming, so we answer stuff and respond quickly so work doesn’t pile up. This causes more stress.”

But the newest thinking is that multi-tasking – like watching your kid on the jungle gym while checking your Twitter timeline – is a weakness, not a strength. In fact, experts from the University of Michigan say that what we call multi-tasking is actually task-switching. Rather than increasing productivity, attention-time-sharing results in confused, burned out people, with more stress. And whining kids, who feel (justifiably) ignored.

It’s possible we’re bad time managers.

Direct Line, leader in experience-driven branding, says we claim to have just four hours of daily free time (three hours less than the ideal work/life balance). My response is, “Four hours?!? I’d love four hours of free time. Are you joking? More like 4 minutes.” My average day is “manic”, as I used to tell my friends when we still saw each other.

Another friend, Georgi, who’s a wife, mom and business owner, can find or make time for pretty much anything that’s important to her. Her take is that people who are excessively busy are time-poor: trying to do too much or doing what they’re doing badly. In failing to be time-savvy, they try to optimise for everything – and optimise nothing.

But what if we’re actually opting out?

Amid all that competitiveness over how little sleep we get and all those unattended spinning classes, it’s possible that we’re using busyness is an excuse to avoid things we don’t value. When we say, “I don’t have time…”, maybe what we mean is “There’s a shortlist of my current priorities and what you’re requesting doesn’t make it…”

Third Option Men, a society for the development of men, warns that busyness can help us to justify failures: “Busy doesn’t exist. It’s an easy way to explain why we haven’t chased our dreams… a card we play when we’re afraid to admit we’re our own anchors.”

Sophie agrees: “When we remove artificial busyness, we’re left with an empty space that is very scary. Now what? No more excuses… We have the room to do what we really ‘want’ or ‘need’ to do without the crutch of busyness tying us down.”

We give the game away online.

At the same time though – while we’re not getting to gym after work because we’re ‘never going to finish’; while we’re too ‘crazy’ to even consider a spontaneous social arrangement; while we’re ‘overloaded’, ‘swamped’, ‘drowning’ (all adjectives I have used myself), we’re still Tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, TikTokking, and commenting on YouTube videos of toddlers dancing to ‘Jerusalema’.

BUSTED. We bitch about busyness, and then allow everyone across all of our social media profiles to watch as we post minute-by-minute commentary about Bridgerton.

Want to better manage busyness?

    1. “See ‘busyness’ as a habit you can break, by practising new ones: daily exercise, leaving your phone at home, not using social media while with your kids.” – Grace
    2. “Know what you like to be busy with and what you don’t – and get the things you don’t like done first. Also, stop blaming others for your busyness. If you’re honest with yourself your level of busyness is within your control.” – Sharon
    3. “Use the time you spend talking about being busy to get stuff done.” – Sophie


Then, get started on denying the cult of busy. Busy people aren’t more important than everyone else – and disseminating that truth starts with you. While you’re at it, forget ‘work-life balance’. It’s unachievable. Strive instead for ‘work-life fit’.

A version of this article originally appeared in Elle magazine.

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