On Busyness

A colleague of mine, whom I haven’t seen frequently enough of late, given our mutually crazy schedules, my increasingly frequent travel, and his life with two small daughters, just stopped in the hall to ask how I was doing.

“Fine,” I told him, trying to bite back the inevitable following phrase. He sensed it coming, though, something I could see in his face, and so I bubbled over into a complaint about the difficulties of conference-planning and the like.

He nodded both sagely and sympathetically as I whined on for a minute or two, after which, feeling a bit self-conscious, I attempted to return the favor. “How are you?” I asked.

He shook his head. “I want a new word. I’m tired of asking how people are or being asked how I am and having only ‘Busy’ as a response. As though it were a state that ever changed.”

This, of course, left me more self-conscious than ever, but made me remember that a member of the Psychology department here gave a talk a couple of years ago in which she pointed to some survey data that said that 85 percent of academics ranked themselves in the top decile for busyness. (Interestingly, something like the same percentage also said that they were better-than-average teachers.)

So how busy am I, really? Busier than I want to be — I haven’t gotten to read a novel that I haven’t assigned since the semester started. I haven’t gotten to write anything except blog posts. And I haven’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in several weeks.

But on the other hand, I’m not so busy that I couldn’t take four days and go to Toronto, and not so busy that I couldn’t go to the gym this morning, and not so busy that I couldn’t re-watch Kissing Jessica Stein last night on cable. I’ve clearly got time wherein I could be getting some stuff done, if I wanted to.

So how do we quantify busyness? Is it in hours worked, tasks on the to-do list, number of times we wake up in the middle of the night thinking of things left undone? Or is it in some other, less countable aspect, a perceived disparity between job difficulty and job rewards? If we’re all this busy, all the time, is there any way to recalibrate the busy-meter?


  1. At a certain point you feel so busy and exhausted that you can’t take advantage of the free time you actually have. At least, that’s been my experience. When I spend all day doing things I have to do (emphasis on “doing”), an hour without responsibilities can easily become an hour in which I can watch tv without feeling a twinge of “I should be doing X.” I feel like I’m only busy to a regular degree, however; my experience interviewing prospective students showed me that the more one has to do, the better one gets at getting things done (i.e. the high school varsity football player/straight-A student/orchestra member is much better at organizing his/her time than I will ever be). So perhaps in order to feel less busy we should all take on more responsibility… you try it first and tell me how it goes.

  2. I really disliked Kissing Jessica Stein when I saw it at the theater (it tries but fails to have edge, and it reaches too much to be 1980s Woody Allen), and yet I’ve rewatched it three times on cable. Now I think it’s great! On cable.

  3. Maybe this is a less poetic way of saying what weez already has, but busyness might better be measured by how deeply one is caught in a routine, whether that routine is grading and researching for x amount of hours or whatever.

    I know that when my routine shifts (say, when I attend a conference), I don’t perceive that as being busy even if I’m active for twelve or fourteen hours or whatever. Or maybe that’s just me.

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