If looking busy is a status symbol, then it follows that busier must always be better — that the less time you have to spare, the more important, more in-demand, more valuable you must be. It’s the ultimate workplace humblebrag: Boasting about how your boss thinks you’ve been knocking it out of the park lately may be unseemly, but offhandedly mentioning how you’re soooo busy with all the things you’ve been asked to tackle more or less gets the same message across.
Except that humblebrag may not mean what it used to. In a recent column in the BBC, writer Lennox Morrison made the case that playing up your busyness has outlived its use as a signifier of your place in the workplace hierarchy: “We’re told to dress for the job we want and conduct ourselves the way that people in the jobs we want conduct themselves,” he wrote. “But being busy is an exception to that time-tested way of thinking. Rather than making a positive impression, you’re more likely to be seen as inefficient and rude.”
The reason: We’ve beaten the whole busy thing to death. Everyone is busy: More than half of U.S. workers aren’t using all of their allotted vacation days, even though people feel like work-life balance is tougher to achieve than ever before.
And if having no time to spare is the default, then it’s not really much of a brag. The co-worker asking you for help already assumes you’re busy, Morrison argues; shutting them down by reiterating it — rather than explaining your priorities or offering to fit them in later — sends the message that you’re not good at managing your time during the workday, or, perhaps even worse, that you just don’t care about making time to help out the team. A better way to show your value, in other words, may be to seem a little less busy and a little more flexible.