I’m going to let you in on one of the best-kept secrets of the universe, a twinkling gem of Deep Human Truth once whispered to me by a benevolent willow tree with the voice of my late grandmother:
“Everyone is fucking busy.”
I know, I know. It’s crazy. We only live inside our own bodies and brains, and therefore have a tendency to feel that is only us who must balance work, social lives, and personal obligations. We only know of our conflicting appointments, cancelled lunches, late nights at the office, or projects with devastatingly-short turnarounds. It’s only human to imagine the world as one large calendar with our obligations on it, a calendar to which everyone has access and around which everyone must plan. But it turns out that literally every person in the world — at least at certain points throughout their lives, including possibly this one — are really fucking busy. They have things to do, commitments to balance, late nights to pull. Their jobs are difficult or time-consuming (or both, often while paying very little money!), and their busy-ness is not at all in conflict with, or mutually exclusive with, your own.
Now, this probably all seems obvious to the point of being condescending — and it is, if you are one of the people who already understands all of these concepts, and puts them in practice in their daily lives. This article is not directed at you! This article is for the people who seem to forget that being permanently-busy and vocal about it is a) really grating for everyone around them, b) nothing to be proud of, and c) not something that makes you superior to anyone else. Being busy is not a competition, being overworked is not a point of pride, and having to cancel or show up late frequently doesn’t make you an enviable mogul who is “having it all” — it makes you an asshole.
But we live in a society that, especially in urban professional environments, views the concept of a work/life balance as a superfluous luxury. We live in a work environment that is so competitive and crushing that full-time unpaid internships are viewed as a norm, and jobs that constantly overflow into every category of one’s life as simply a byproduct of Doing What You Love. We’re supposed to draw so much validation, identity, and meaning from our jobs that, if we are constantly on the verge of emotional collapse or physical exhaustion from them, that must mean that we’re just really good employees who really fucking love their jobs. Combine this with the cloying — and highly-impossible — concept of “having it all,” and you have a world where talking constantly about how busy and stressed you are has become a humblebrag, instead of a cry for help.
And we all know that person who is constantly humblebragging about their busy-ness, telling you how they are at the office until 10 PM for the nth evening in a row, or pulling a weekend’s worth of work to finish a project, or have to plan a lunch six weeks in advance because they are “sooooo jam packed,” showing up late to engagements because their time is precious, and yours is disposable. We know that person, because they make themselves known at every turn. They want people to know and acknowledge how busy they are, because if they aren’t getting social validation via being recognized as the one who is doing this whole professional thing the best/hardest, what is any of it for?
The truth, of course, is that the appropriate response to someone who constantly talks about their borderline-illegal working hours and crushing social schedule is A) no one cares, and/or B) it sounds like you should find a new job. The truth is that the only possibilities are that they are exaggerating to martyr themselves, and are no busier than anyone else, in which case, no one cares. Or they actually are in a destructive and, again, likely illegal relationship with their job, in which case they should find a new fucking job. Either way, the solution is not “constantly telling people how ~tOtALLy SwAmPeD~ they are,” while doing nothing productive about it.
We could all spend our time telling people how utterly chaotic our lives are, and it’s natural and healthy to, from time to time, explain a temporary state of increased stress or occupation. Everyone should be sympathetic and understanding to a loved one who is going through a period of difficult work/life balance, and may not be able to make that one thing, or call you back in a timely manner. But the key is that it’s a transient moment that is being resolved, because the only healthy way to maintain relationships is to not constantly be in a state of blowing them off because your boss abuses you or you agree to too many social engagements. There is a difference between occasionally having a tough moment, and basing your personal brand around how utterly busy you are, because we are all busy, and the social contract is that we agree not to constantly tell each other about our personal checklists because we understand that everyone is doing their best to accommodate.
The bottom line is that constantly, endlessly talking about how busy you are is just a form of narcissism. If you really had it that bad — and/or didn’t relish the feeling of being able to constantly blow things off or have a social excuse — you would do something about it in a more long-term sense. But you probably don’t, because being “swamped” is a part of your identity, in the same way a certain outfit or favorite band or workout plan might be. Because we live in a society which, in the most backwards reading of what makes human life valuable and happy, puts social cachet on not being able to live normally and keep basic commitments. And that fucking sucks.
If your job is truly cannibalizing your life, find a new one. If you are just mildly busy, understand that everyone is, and the point of life is navigating that collectively and being understanding of one another. If you constantly feel the urge to tell everyone how packed your life is, restrain yourself. And if your friend is constantly doing that to you, do everyone involved a favor and say “Hey, I’m busy, too. Let’s agree to not make it the first topic of conversation every time we see each other, because that is depressing as shit.”
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