I’ll admit it from the outset of this blog, I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about the use of the word ‘busy’. Or, perhaps a bee on my bonnet.
Like most irks, it has built gradually then suddenly… It’s been buzzing out there in my peripheral awareness for a while, but has only just splatted itself on the windscreen at full pelt, so to speak.
Brace yourselves, this has been building for a while.
So, here goes.
My usual greeting for friends and colleagues, I haven’t seen or contacted for a while, is something along the lines of: “How’s it going/how are things?”
My preferred answer at this point is always: “Great thanks/ good thanks”.
I’d even settle for a “Pretty good” or “Well, it’s been a challenge but we’ll get through it.”
So, how come the response I often get, and that I hear others get, is the one that still catches me off guard, like a sudden splat on the windscreen? Like a bee squished on the bonnet?
Maybe even offered with a dramatic exhaling of breath.
There’s a brief pause before I then ask, “Good busy or bad busy?”
I ask this question, genuinely, to find out whether what they are doing is something they believe in or not. Somewhere along the line, it’s always worth reminding ourselves that there is, more often than we realise, an element of choice in everything we do.
I’ve said before, in previous blogs, that the difference between stress and engagement is often about whether we see the true value and purpose in what we are doing. If we’ve chosen to take on something purposeful and valuable, then I’d call that ‘good busy’. If we haven’t, then maybe that’s ‘bad busy’ and we should do something about it.
So, what does ‘busy’ mean? Is ‘busy’ a badge of honour, or a brag, in what sometimes feels like an arms race of workload, deadlines and pressure currently pervading schools and colleges? Where we feel the need to justify and describe what we do in terms of quantity or volume. Or is ‘busy’ some sort of plea, where we are telling others that we have taken on too much, or worse still, that we have no choice in all that is piled upon us and we are asking for some sort of sympathy or empathy?
It’s also a bit relative. One person’s idea of busy is rarely the same as anyone else’s, sometimes particularly to those who don’t work in education. The saying ‘If you want something doing, ask a busy person’ is true enough at the start or the end of any school year. It has become the forte of educators to manage four ‘special’ assemblies, an evening leaving-do, a Year 6 disco and pull off three fully-costumed performances of the Lion King, all in the very same week in July, and not think twice about it. However, all that feels a lot better when you track it back to its core purpose.
So, before we look at what their purpose is, when folks say they’re busy, perhaps we should also look at the purpose of their busyness itself. Finding purpose in all that we do, is essential to our well-being, essential to us thriving and not just surviving.
Confucius reminds us to ‘choose a job you love and you’ll never have to do a day’s work in your life’. So, having chosen a job in education, we need to keep finding opportunities to ‘choose’. Opportunities to choose not to feel stressed, to enjoy what we do and, if we are well led in our role, to choose the best way to get aspects of that job done. We should also have the opportunity to remind ourselves of the purpose of what we do, to reconnect with the things that drew us to this sector in the first place. Otherwise, all this busyness without clear and positive purpose is merely working in what we call ‘the thick of the thin stuff’.
So, perhaps busyness is in fact the easy choice, the unconscious default. What is more challenging is the mindful, more demanding choice of finding what compelling purpose we choose to permeate through all that we do: The choice of what to hang onto and what to let go: The choice of what to hold tightly or what to hold less tightly: The choice of nurturing strong working relationships over functional tasks and ‘jobs to be done’.
So, what is the effect on others when we keep telling them how busy we are? Guilt, envy, pity? Or is there an alternative? Can we describe what we do in a way that inspires and empowers others to find their own purpose, their own ‘survive and thrive’ kit. When we are fully immersed in, and engaged with a whole host of endeavours that we’ve actively, consciously chosen to undertake and that we are enriched by, then the word ‘busy’, even the words ‘good busy’ just don’t adequately describe that.
So, bees and bonnets taken care of, I’ll just say out loud what I’m sure you’ve been thinking as you’ve been reading this. Maybe, when I ask them, people tell me they’re busy because they just don’t want to talk to me. Perhaps I do go on a bit about things that I care about.
A version of this blog was published earlier for the charity Education Support Partnership.