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The worst word in business: 'Busy'
Why it's time to stop talking about how swamped you are
 
And then she has to make dinner, and then she needs to call her mom, and then there's that laundry, and then...
And then she has to make dinner, and then she needs to call her mom, and then there's that laundry, and then... Courtesy Shutterstock

We've all had this conversation at least a dozen times:

"Hey, Cindy, how's it going?"

"Oh, you know — busy as usual."

The details vary — maybe it's "super slammed," or "up to my neck at work," or "crashing all my deadlines," (and maybe your name isn't Cindy) — but the message is the same: My life is so jam-packed with career-related commitments, like conference calls, and client meetings, and running back and forth to the ATM with paychecks, that I have almost no time left over for the little things, like, say, this talk.

You can see how it's a conversation killer. But beyond putting off friends and family — not to mention potential clients — talking about how busy you are has another undesired effect: It makes you seem ineffective.

People who are always scrambling to meet deadlines don't seem to have everything under control, explains Fast Company's Laura Vanderkam. People with loose, flexible schedules, on the other hand, seem pretty boss.

Empty space means that you control your time, and that you do not have to bend to other people's schedules and whims. If you want to work from home — and then go swimming at 3 p.m. on a beautiful August afternoon — you can do so. If you want to spend the morning thinking through a perplexing but promising new line of business, you can...

That is power. It's not about having a million things to do. Everyone has a million things to do. The ultimate sign of success is having a million things to do but only doing a few of them. [Fast Company]

Of course, most of us would be ill-advised to break out of work at 3 p.m. for a quick dip. It's just not the reality of our jobs. But even if you're not running your own company or the literal master of your own schedule, being the busiest guy in the office doesn't mean you're completing the best work.

See, people with crowded schedules tend to have less bandwidth — the ability "to reason, to focus, to learn new ideas, to make creative leaps and to resist our immediate impulses," says Harvard economics professor Sendhil Mullainathan in Time. The result is that while a busy person is doing more, he may be distracted, and thus less effective at what he's doing.

To fight this, start by recognizing that "different tasks require more or less bandwidth," says Mullainathan.

That roundtable project update meeting may be time-consuming but not bandwidth consuming. The final decision on what to do about that nice but underperforming employee is not time-consuming but is bandwidth consuming. Being a good parent or spouse may be both time- and bandwidth consuming. [Time]

Mullainathan also recommends recognizing that "some tasks tax your bandwidth even when you are not working on them — a looming deadline or a challenging decision call your mind away from whatever you're working on," while "other tasks do not tax bandwidth but refresh it. It may be time with family, watching a basketball game, time at the gym, or simply doing nothing."

Finally, talking about how slammed you are can actually damage your ability to connect and interact with people, which is bad for all aspects of life.

In Harvard Business Review, entrepreneur Meredith Fineman says, "To assume that being 'busy' (at this point it has totally lost its meaning) is cool, or brag-worthy, or tweetable, is ridiculous."

By lobbing these brags, endlessly puffing our shoulders about how "up to my neck" we are, we're missing out on important connections with family and friends, as well as personal time. In addition to having entire conversations about how busy we are, we fail to share feelings with friends and family, ask about important matters, and realize that the "busy" is something that can be put on hold for a little while. [Harvard Business Review]

So do everyone a favor: Next time someone asks how you're doing, just say "fine."

 
Carmel Lobello is the business editor at TheWeek.com. Previously, she was an editor at DeathandTaxesMag.com.

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