Un-busy blues

Resisting the self-stigma of slow times

Fred Mael

Some of you went through dark days without much work during recent years. For some, there are still lull periods. Maybe your service or product is seasonal or subject to ”feast or famine” cycles. In any case, you may have experienced the dreaded “not busy” or “nothing to do” phenomenon. Sure, you could be out there marketing or networking, and you could be cleaning your office or filing papers, and you could be preparing articles or speeches, but there’s nothing right now that you have to do. Even getting to know your employees better feels kind of forced when you aren’t busy.

With lack of busyness comes the largest concerns of lack of income or fears about keeping your job. However, there are other downsides to not being busy as well. You become the go-to person for the projects no one else wants. Your time is treated as less valuable than that of others on a tight schedule. You find that crutches, whether surfing the net, talk radio or sports talk, may work as distractions by getting you agitated about other people’s failings, but leave you feeling flat afterwards. Ironically, you may find that when you are less busy, you are actually less available to help out at home or in the community – unintentionally, you power down and operate less efficiently in order to make the time pass by less painfully. Unfortunately, to the people around you, this makes no sense – they will see you as wallowing in self-pity.

Prolonged lack of busyness requires tangible and sometimes radical solutions, including more and better marketing, new strategies, aligning products and services to market demands, and perhaps going back to working for others. Here, we discuss primarily the emotional toil of not being busy. There are three parts to salvaging the situation. The first is to understand that what you are feeling is “normal”. The second is to realize that our society’s strange values are needlessly making your predicament feel even worse. The third is to do something to feel better.

Join the Club

First, it is pretty normal to feel agitated and unfocused when not busy. According to acclaimed psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced me-HIGH chick-sent-me-HIGH-ee), when faced with empty stretches of time, most people will naturally start to experience worrisome, insecure thoughts which can eat away at their self-esteem. Being busy allows you the luxury of just reacting to demands, while being not busy forces you to be more planful and proactive. For many, switching modes can be unfamiliar and stressful.

Our social norms make things worse. Author Barbara Ehrenreich, in a 1985 New York Times article, described what she labeled the American Cult of Busyness, in which being perpetually busy is seen as both the mark of success and as an intrinsic virtue. Together with the corollary value of wanting to be totally self-sufficient and not bother (read: be a burden to) others, it sets up the ideal of someone being so busy and engaged that they never need support. The problem is that when the merry-go-round stops and a person stops being busy, all kinds of negative thoughts start to fester in the mind, such as “what’s wrong with me?”, “have I lost it?”, and “nobody better find out”. A person can move quickly from being in the thick of things to not only being not busy but also lonely, secretive, and suspicious. All the attributions you and others made about people who weren’t busy all the time, such as their lacking in competence or drive, may rebound on to you when you are down. You need to do what it takes to reverse the downward slide in your head and stop it from becoming reality.

Strategies and Reframes

There are better options for dealing with your feelings than simply sitting at your desk and pretending you are busy, eating or drinking too much and too often, or sinking into despair.

Turn “coulds” into “wills”. A blank schedule with infinite possibilities is daunting. A short daily list of who you will call, how you will package yourself, what you will read or write, or even what you will clean, can provide enough focus to get you moving.

Don’t assume. Pay attention to the role that being perpetually busy has played in your relationships with family and friends. Is it your way of telling them you have value? Has it allowed you to exempt yourself from what you consider chores – including interacting with them? More importantly, check your premise that they have respected you only because you are busy or successful. You may find that you are valued (by most) for intrinsic reasons and that those family and friends are a safe and supportive haven while you await the next surge of work and beyond.

Continuity anchors. More than ever, stick with or ramp up those anchors in your life that can provide continuity before, during and after your current busyness crisis. What are your continuity anchors? It could be sports or regular exercise, prayer or meditation, or volunteer work. In my work with former military officers who are now either less busy or less totally engaged in their work than they were when in service, altruistic anchors were critical for well being. Even if you are very busy right now, you should think about what your life anchors are, as you may need them right now and will certainly need them in down times.

Play obituary. You may have been asked in various workshops to imagine your obituary in order to clarify what you value. Perhaps you focused on the kind of person you were, or even on what you accomplished for yourself and others. Odds are that you will not want to be remembered for always having been busy at work, or always too busy for anything else. If being busy won’t be your defining quality when it’s all over, it need not define you now.

Not being busy for any length of time is stressful enough because of how it affects your income and your career prospects. You can make things worse by over-interpreting your idleness in the worst possible light – or you can accept it and move on despite it. Choosing the latter will make it more bearable, and probably shorten the time till you return to the land of the busy.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. www.maelconsulting.com. This article appeared originally in the October 2010 issue of Baltimore SmartCEO and Washington SmartCEO magazine.