Think about the last time you complained about or just mentioned how busy you are. You might have missed a social gathering and used your busyness as an excuse, or might have griped to a coworker in exasperation after discovering an increase to your workload.
But be honest. How busy are you really?
According to a study from Havas Worldwide, about 42 percent of us are willing to admit that we overstate our daily obligations, and 60 percent of us already believe that most of our peers are exaggerating their workloads. When you factor in the number of people who overstate their level of busyness without realizing it, and those who know they’re overstating but aren’t willing to admit it, you can all but guarantee the majority of us are exaggerators.
But why is this the case, and what should we be doing about it?
Why We All Want (and Need) to Be Busy
These are just some of the common reasons we exaggerate how busy we are:
- We want to look good at work. In most workplaces, the people who come in early and stay late are valued more than their contemporaries because we perceive more hours (and more effort) as a sign of dedication and something to be proud of. If we claim we’re spending more time or are working harder than we actually are, we get to make ourselves look more valuable to our employers.
- We want to compete with our peers. In some ways, our level of busyness has become a marker of social status. If you’re busier than everyone in your group of friends, you can feel more important than them – even if it’s on an unconscious level. Conversely, someone who appears busier than we are can prompt us to try to close that gap to keep up, even if it means exaggerating how much we actually do.
- We focus too much on time. Our Western culture focuses heavily on time; we’re obsessed with punctuality, and we tend to make the most of every minute of our lives. Over-optimizing this way can make us feel rushed and constrained, even if we aren’t.
- We label voluntary acts as obligations. Culturally, we also have a bad habit of labeling entirely voluntary acts as obligations, which makes us feel busier than we actually are. For example, let’s say you plan to go to the gym to work out after work, meet a friend for drinks, and clean the house when you get home. All three activities are non-necessities – you’re choosing to do them in your free time – but they can feel like obligations, nonetheless.
- We want an excuse for bad habits or neglecting other priorities. Sometimes we use our exaggerations of busyness as an excuse; we can’t take on any new responsibilities at work because we’re already too busy with our current workload, or we can’t make it to a party because there’s just too much going on.
How to Fix the Problem
This may seem a non-issue, or one that isn’t significant, but there are several issues that could arise from this busy-bragging. By overstating our levels of busyness, we:
- Mislead our employers, resulting in imbalanced and inefficient businesses.
- Lie to our friends, making excuses that can do more harm than good.
- Lie to ourselves, making us feel more stressed than we need to be.
- Make the problem worse, because we contribute to a culture that takes pride in being busy.
So what can we do to correct the problem?
- Make an honest evaluation. First, make an honest evaluation of your busyness and obligations. How many hours of the day do you spend working? And how many of those hours are truly working, rather than talking to coworkers or grabbing a snack? How much time do you get to spend on hobbies and personal projects? Do the math – you’ll probably be surprised at what you find.
- Understand why you exaggerate. It may be hard to pinpoint, but try to understand the factors that lead you to exaggerate how busy you are. Whom do you tend to exaggerate to? What do you gain by exaggerating? When you discover the answer, you might realize the futility of the exercise.
- Work on being more upfront. Transparency is important – both in the workplace and in your personal life. Work on being direct and upfront about how you’re really doing, without exaggeration.
There’s no easy fix for this busy-bragging epidemic, but we can all take steps on our own to make the problem better. The first step is recognizing there’s a problem in the first place, so if you’re able to be honest with yourself, and admit that you overstate your obligations, you’ve already made some progress.