Avoiding the “I’m So Busy” Trap

Anyone who has had the chance to work in more than one psychology department – either as undergraduate, graduate, or faculty member – comes to realize that every workplace is different. There are different norms, different dress codes, different colleagues, and different leadership styles. But whatever work setting you end up in, you are guaranteed to find one strong commonality:

everyone is so busy.

And you will find this commonality immediately because everyone will want to tell you how busy they are.

The so busy phenomenon has been curious to me for many years as rarely a day goes by that I don’t hear someone talking about it (note sometimes even I slip into the pattern). In fact, I would bet that talking about how much work people have and/or how overloaded they are is the most frequent topic of conversation I have in my department, whether it be with students or fellow faculty.  But if everyone is always busy, what good does talking about it actually do? A recent study shed some light on the effects of complaining in the workplace. Using a daily diary method, the authors tracked the impact of negative daily events at work, finding that over time these do indeed lead to decreased engagement and positive emotion, but only for people who complained about them (Demerouti & Cropanzano, 2016).

Being a graduate student or faculty member in psychology almost certainly means you are busy. I suspect that most of us fall within 1 or 2 standard deviations of everyone else around us on level of businesses, accordingly complaining about being busy to other people who are just as busy doesn’t really make sense. It would be like a fish complaining to another fish that they are wet. Even for that small percentage of us that truly are busier than the average, complaining likely only serves to keep these negative thoughts floating around our heads, prolonging their negative impact.

But of course we shouldn’t completely bottle up our feelings of being stressed or overwhelmed. They key is this. Find one person in your life that has a full and complete understanding of your work – knowing both the tasks specific and interpersonal stressors you are currently dealing with. Over time, this person will be able to understand your ebbs and flows of stress and also be able to ask you key follow up questions and express real empathy when you vent. This is because they will have real knowledge about what got you to that point and will know how you like to receive support.

Ultimately, complaining about being busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just that we need to do it to people who truly care and won’t simply reply “Yeah, I’m super busy too”. Plus, cutting back on complaints has one more added benefit in the workplace. People will like you more as you will be viewed as more positive and put together. A win for your well-being as well as your work relationships.

About the Author

Ryan Duffy is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida and has worked there since 2009. He received his B.A. from Boston College and his M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. Website: http://www.psych.ufl.edu/~duffy/