How COVID-19 ended the reign of being busy

COVID-19 spurred a collective deep breath for our society that loves to hate being busy.

Emily Hackeling, Content Marketing Lead at Front
27 July 20206 Minute Read

COVID-19 spurred a collective deep breath for our society that loves to hate being busy.

As a self-proclaimed and proud “yes”-woman, saying, “I’m busy” has always been a bit of a conflicting statement for me. I like to be busy — but I never want to be described as someone who’s too busy. There’s a delicate distinction. 

For decades, our society has cultivated a strange and unhealthy relationship with being busy. From a young age, we’re taught that being busy leads to success. Kids “keep busy” to stay out of trouble. Shops are “open for business” when they’re ready to sell. We hate it, but we do it anyways. It feels satisfactory, it feels productive. But a lot of the time, we really just want to watch Netflix.

Until 2020 hit. It’s been an awakening of sorts: we want something more, particularly from our work. COVID-19 forced us to pause — and once we did, we began to decouple “busy” and “success”, allowing us to realize that the two don’t always have to be intertwined. 

Busy = success?

When you look at the etymology of the word busy, it’s clear that there have always been negative strings attached. It originated from the Old English bisig, which meant careful or anxious

Today the Dictionary.com definition for busy also reflects these conflicting meanings: first, “actively and attentively engaged in work or a pastime”, which feels neutral if not positive. It’s followed by “not at leisure; otherwise engaged” — clearly negative.  Is busy good? Is busy bad? There’s a very fine line, and the society we’ve built has made it hard for us to see it.

Devolving from the “American Dream” to “Hustle” culture

How did our society get so entrenched in busyness? It might start with James Truslow Adams’ American Dream, the notion of the U.S being “a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” When we can theoretically work to get anything we want, why wouldn’t we work constantly to get it all?

It might also be “yes” culture, which is articulated beautifully in the 2008 rom-com “Yes! Man” starring Jim Carrey and Zooey Deschanel. “Probably some of the best things that have ever happened to you in life, happened because you said yes to something. Otherwise things just sort of stay the same.” Why turn down a single offer for anything when anything could be your shining opportunity for greatness?

Or it could be the newer, trendier, and frighteningly viral “hustle” culture — where performative workaholism is praised as a way of life rather than a means to an end. If you’re not #hustling and #grinding and waking up at 4:30am every day, do you even have a pulse? 

Perhaps the above phenomena are all products of each other. Whatever it is, it’s not our best look, and it’s pushing people to exhaustion.

The Pavlovian pull towards busyness 

Every morning I sip coffee from my favorite mug. It has a famous cartoon on it, created by New Yorker legend Bob Mankoff in 1993. The single line was an instant pop culture hit — as has remained so for 26 years. 

Bob Mankoff cartoon

It wasn’t until COVID-19 that I made the realization why this one silly image is so widely relatable: our society has bred our complex obsession with being busy. 

So while a global pandemic has brought a multitude of new and interesting emotions to mind every single day for the last 5 months, there is one undeniable emotion that’s haunted me since the moment the “stay home” email landed in my inbox: relief. 

Forget about the fear, uncertainty, panic, and general anxiety of not knowing if I’d get sick, if I’d lose loved ones, or what the future would hold. Those were all sensible emotions. But relief? I was disappointed in myself: Are you really that lazy?

I felt a sense of relief because COVID-19 is perhaps the most legitimate excuse I’ve ever known. It’s not a “whoops, didn’t see that text.” COVID-19 is a 100% certified, genuine leather excuse that applies for anyone, anywhere in the world. And I don’t even have to use the phrase “I’m too busy.”

Because in a society that condemns being busi-less, we’re taught that pausing is quitting. Pulling the proverbial plug on social events and work commitments and personal goals means we’re accepting the loss of that treat labeled “success” dangling above our heads. 

Shelter-in-place changed that. It was a forced moment to pause in work and life — to hit the garbage disposal on a sink that has been clogged with leftover activity we might not care about. It’s forcing us to confront our potentially complex relationship with being busy.

Busy was already on its way out of vogue

While COVID-19 may have forced us to look the “busy” problem in the face, the badge of honor for being busy had been losing its shine long before 2020’s catastrophic events.  People need a break from the bisig

Is it coincidence that mental health has become part of the public conversation over the last decade? More than 87% of U.S. employers are offering mental health benefits in 2019, up nearly 20% from just five years ago. Mental health VC investments reached more than $750 million in 2019, according to research from Octopus Ventures one of Europe’s largest early stage investors.

What’s next? Impact.

Our society has been running on a hamster wheel for decades. Yes, we might be trim little rodents, burning fat and calories — yet when we’re done, there’s no carrot poking through the cage for us. 

Likely out of necessity, our relationship with work has been shifting. People want to work for something they believe in. They want to #hustle and #grind — but not just to be able to post on Instagram about it. 

That’s why impact might be our society’s next, much healthier fixation. Impact derives from the Latin impactus, “to press closely into something”, and before that, impingere, “to push into, drive into, or strike against”.

The biggest difference between busy and impact when it comes to our work lives? Busy is about the state in which you are doing something. It’s about what keeps you occupied. Impact, on the other hand, is about the end result. It’s the moment you look towards. 

Your impact is the reason you’re busy. 

It makes sense that we’re moving on from being busy. It was never a sustainable state of existence. And while a journey is no doubt equal in importance to its end goal, a journey can be much more enjoyable when you know there’s a giant chocolate cake waiting for you at the end. 

Written by Emily Hackeling
Last Updated: 27 July 2020
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