You could be, without even knowing it. Unsure? Try removing the words ‘I’m busy’ from your vocabulary for the next 2 weeks. It’s harder than you think.

Nowadays, being busy carries a certain social prestige and it’s practically expected in the workplace. ‘I’m busy’ is the go-to response for ‘how are you?’. Try saying ‘I’m relaxed and everything’s under control’ and you risk being labelled as lazy, disengaged, or given more work to do.

Yes, wearing a “Busy Badge” is evidence you’re working hard and earning your salary; you’re not just freeloading and taking up space. I mean, how can you be efficient and effective without being busy? But, is being busy all it’s cracked up to be, and at what cost?

Never have people been so swamped with information (thanks to 24/7 technology) or have so many KPIs to meet.

Whilst a certain amount of pressure keeps you on-game, being constantly busy (without adequate downtime) is killing you!

The modern business world is a dangerously busy place. With businesses constantly re-inventing themselves, how you manage change, complexity, and uncertainty are standard interview questions to evaluate how adaptable and resilient you are. No one wants to hire someone who can’t ‘cope’.

To manage the ever-increasing pressure to do more with less, people try squeezing more in; they multitask, respond to email outside office hours, and rush from one thing to another. These habits achieve what you’re trying to avoid. They scatter your attention, make you less productive, increase errors, and leave you feeling dissatisfied and pressured.

What you really need to do is to focus your attention, prioritise, complete one thing at a time, and take regular breaks. However, this can be easier said than done.

There’s busy and there’s busy

Before reading further, let me clarify what I mean by busy. There’s nothing wrong with being busy per se. It’s healthy to be fully engaged with work and life. We call these ‘flow’ states and they’re commonly associated with doing what you love. You recognise healthy busy-ness when you lose yourself in what you’re doing, when time feels like it’s standing still, or flying by.

That kind of ‘busy’ is energising. Do more of that! What I’m referring to here is the treadmill-headless-chicken busy. This busy leaves you tired, overwhelmed, and generally discontented. You might only realise it when you’re forced to stop, or you collapse.

People who wear their busy badge with pride believe they’re getting a lot done and rarely notice the damage they’re doing, as they’re doing it.

In my experience as a coach, people who wear their busy badge with pride believe they’re getting a lot done and rarely notice the damage they’re doing, as they’re doing it. They buy into the “busy equals success” myth, and positive feedback from peers and managers reinforces their behaviours.

Even when the impact become obvious (physical illness, relationship breakdown, burnout, anxiety, depression etc.), busy people push on through, often doing more of the same (only harder) in a desperate attempt to cope. If I hear putting people through another time management course will help, I’ll scream! People cannot work any smarter; they need completely new self-management skills.

Generally, most people know they should stop, but stopping is difficult. This is because being constantly busy re-wires the brain to crave more busy-ness. And pausing feels uncomfortable to busy people because it’s unfamiliar (think adrenaline rushes and dopamine highs). Yes, finding yourself not busy can surprise you; like only noticing the hum of the air conditioner when it turns off.

Give a busy person an unexpected lull and they’ll commonly fill the void with more doing. Which makes sense. If you’ve been running around like a headless chicken (for weeks, months, or years) and you suddenly take your foot off the pedal it’ll feel strange, like going through withdrawal.

Constantly being busy increases stress

While being busy might initially feel ok (even exciting), eventually persistent busy-ness stresses you out. Your brain is not designed to work well under too much pressure. All your executive functions like paying attention, problem-solving, learning, remembering, decision-making, etc. are compromised. You can’t function at your best, and your general health, relationships, and work all suffer.

The more you try to pack in, the more stressed you become and consequently the more time you spend lost in thought. Your mind wanders to the past and to the future; anywhere than what’s happening now. Interestingly, when you’re lost in thought you’re mostly unaware of being lost in thought, so there’s nothing you can do about it.

You can’t interrupt a mind from wandering when you don’t know that it is!

Think about it… This lack of awareness (which busy amplifies) leaves you at the mercy of every fleeting thought, urge, or emotion you have, making it far easier to be tugged around by the incessant voice in your head. That’s exhausting!

So how do you know if you’re too busy?  What are the signs?

The ‘My Off Switch Programme: Mindfulness for busy professional people who want to transform their career and life’ has a list of 44 yes/no questions to gauge if you’re wearing a “Busy Badge of Honour”. Some people tick them all. One woman admitted wanting to tick some questions twice!

Questions include:

  • Do you leave work feeling tired, but wired at the end of the day?
  • Don’t get enough sleep, or feel tired on waking?
  • Feel guilty saying no?
  • Regularly take work home?
  • Think about work when exercising or socialising?
  • Need coffee to get going in the morning?
  • Need alcohol to wind down?
  • Attached to your executive jewellery (cellphone, laptop, tablet)?
  • Get annoyed when people don’t respond promptly?
  • Over-react to minor irritations and regret it later?

It’s a way to assess your “Busy Badge” status. Click here to download the entire list and do it for yourself.

How does mindfulness help?

The adverse effects of wearing a “Busy Badge” are reversed when you practise mindfulness. So, how does it work?

Mindfulness is the practice of sitting quietly for short (or extended) periods each day and re-training your mind to focus on one thing (usually your breath). As you become more aware of when your mind wanders, the better you get at fetching it back again. Over time, this simple practice rewires your brain, so your mind works differently.

Of course, mindfulness doesn’t alter the amount of stuff coming at you, but learning to manage your focus means staying in the present more often, improving your ability to deal with distractions (both internal and external). Plus, slowing, deepening, and steadying your breathing diminishes your stress response which improves your mind’s executive functions, allowing you to be more focused, creative, and resilient.

Mindful people are more discerning about what they give their attention to, and are more in control of how they respond. This makes meeting the requirements of life and work less overwhelming and more achievable, and is consequently deeply satisfying.

While it may sound easy, being more mindful takes consistent practice. Ultimately, it’s life changing.

Kerene Strochnetter is the Managing Director at Mindful at Work. Mindful at Work delivers programmes across New Zealand and Australia to produce unprecedented levels of engagement, performance and well-being.

Workplace mindfulness is not just learning how to meditate. It is a robust set of practices (generated from comprehensive research) used to align values with behaviours and transform workplace culture. You can find out more about Kerene and Mindful at Work here.

It’s all about changing the way you work to positively influence workplace culture.