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Busy-ness Insider

Consider this my formal petition to ban the word “busy” on Duke’s campus—at least until we can figure out how to use it as a meaningful word that gives some substance back. Right now, we throw it around as placeholder confetti so much that it’s come to mean virtually nothing, although our check-ins usually feel incomplete without them. Over the last four years, I’ve trained this craft to the point that I barely knew how to respond to the “How’s your week going?” question without any mention of my busy-ness. I certainly didn’t recognize it at the time, but as a first year, I somehow learned that this is the way we converse with each other here, then adapted my own language to nestle in neatly to this mold. 

On some level, I’ve been aware of this oddity for a while; I’ve developed a language for the plights of “busy-ness culture” and yet I still bought into it at every opportunity. Clearly, there was something that kept me from stepping outside of it, nudged me to keep clinging to my identity as a perpetually busy person. So I’ve been pondering what in the world this is all about.

We certainly didn’t invent hustle culture at Duke, but there is a certain uniqueness to its brand here. Even before arriving on campus, the phrase “Make the most of your Duke experience” is a familiar one to incoming students. Though this can be helpful at times, when this mantra rings constantly in your ears with such high stakes, a very specific anxiety can creep in, one that whispers “What if you’re not making the most of this experience?” or “What if a different combination of experiences would actually make more of your time at Duke?” Preaching our schedule’s saturation can be a way to ward off any lingering fear that we’re not pursuing the perfect alchemy of “making the most of Duke” and can quiet some of those internal worries. 

It also seems that we perform our busyness in more outward-serving ways. Researchers Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia and Anat Keinan explore the ways that a lack of leisure time has become a “humble-brag” and propose that “long hours of work and lack of leisure time have now become a very powerful status symbol.” If we characterize ourselves as perpetually in demand, we position ourselves as a scarce commodity and thus as vessels of very valuable human capital. Very alluring, sure, but also not the end goal of what I want to be as a living human person.  

The busy competition has social effects; in addition to perpetuating a positive feedback loop of looming anxiety that we’re not doing enough or worth enough on the free market, it also closes us off to each other quite profoundly. New York Times columnist Tim Kreider explains that the “busy” descriptor “makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” By constantly insisting that our week has been “crazy busy,” we implicitly say, “please don’t reach out to me for anything, I’ve got more than enough going on” and set up barriers that make ourselves inaccessible. Protecting our time and expressing our limits is a healthy and great practice, yet when that’s our perpetual knee-jerk reaction, it becomes a symptom of a deeper underlying issue. 

I’ve been pondering this, feeling less and less excited by my own busyness, and finally about six weeks ago, something clicked. My roommate mentioned one of her professor’s remarks that “We’re all just the stories we tell ourselves,” which got me thinking: if there’s truth to this—and I believe there is—then my busyness story sure as heck is unappealing. Why would I want the story of my life to be that I’m the busiest bee to ever live? Why do I want my Duke experience to be one of barreling through a mountain of experiences like a freight train? From a narrative perspective, that’s actually a profoundly boring story. Deciding I wanted to make things more interesting, I started to search for ways to change this and began by eliminating the word “busy” itself. So for the past month and a half, I’ve forbidden myself from saying the word at all. 

Sure, playing a one-woman game of Taboo isn’t going to instantly change any outward objective reality or metaphysically erase the items on my Google Calendar, but truly, truly, something began to change. 

A couple years ago, Dean Sue told my friend and I that she prefers to say “active and engaged” when describing what might traditionally be called a “busy” week, so I’ve been borrowing her wise words and practice in my own experiment. The act of needing to pause for half a second to find a new word has been enough to slowly reframe how I’m thinking about each item in my day. I get the chance to actually think, “What am I up to this week?” and ponder each item with a certain nuance and attention that I didn’t before. More often than not, when I’m forced to find a new descriptive adjective, I become more excited for these individual events than I did when I could easily wrap them up in a blanket “busy” descriptor. 

The purpose of this isn’t to be coy or pretend that our lives and obligations don’t exist, but rather to simply get more creative. “Busy” became far too easy and when I answered with that knee-jerk response, I wasn’t even thinking about what the most true parts of my day were. 

In situations where I do feel the need to express that the week’s been quite full, I’ve tried adding on intentional descriptors, like “It’s been a little bit more of back-to-back stuff, but honestly they’re all good things.” I didn’t fully realize it, but I’d started turning everything—even things I loved doing—into looming tasks and had started to resent even the joyful things because they contributed to my self-imposed busyness. I don’t mean to veer too heavily into an Eat, Pray, Love description of all this, but switching my framing away from “busy” has forced me to focus on the specific, intrinsic value of each part of my day and in turn, start genuinely enjoying everything more. 

I don’t think “busy” needs to be banished forever, nor do I think it’s an inherently malignant word—it’s actually telling us something important about the way we’re living and framing our lives. Sort of like a symptom of a larger underlying illness. I do, however, think that at present, our use of the word separates us from each other and from ourselves, perpetuating an anxious, capitalistic view of our day-to-day lives.

This is where the caretaking comes into play; I think that a collectively more cognizant wielding of the word could help disrupt this positive feedback loop of the Duke busy competition and perhaps subtly change the language we use to narrate our worlds. If it’s true that we’re—at least in part—the stories we tell ourselves, then a more creative use of language could touch the deeper implications of how these words mold our lives and thus our communities. A shift away from “busy” could help to dissolve the barriers to access that we create between each other and within ourselves, hopefully nudging us closer to kinship and increased agency over how we weave the stories of our lives.

Sara Kate Baudhuin is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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