What Kind of Busy Are You?
By Katie Denis
How many times have you run into a friend and had this conversation?
You: How are you? It’s been too long.
Friend: Good! So busy! How are you?
You: Good. So busy!
You could create a highlight reel with how many times I’ve had this exact conversation. But I am so bored with busy.
At this point, assume everyone is busy. This seemingly unavoidable norm has become one of America’s cultural trademarks. There is even research to prove that we view busyness as a status symbol. The question is not if you are busy, but what you are busy doing — and if those agenda items add value to your life.
Next time I run into a friend, I want good reasons why I’m busy. I want to tell them about the manatees that swam up next to my kayak in Florida or how I just went on a field trip with my daughter’s class and got to see her reaction as what she learned about space came to life in front of her.
In short, our busyness should be evidence of a full life, not just a chaotic work life. The only way we are able to reliably achieve this fullness is through using our vacation time.
Unfortunately, most Americans are not using the time they earn — not even close. Project: Time Off’s State of American Vacation 2017 found that 54 percent of workers left time on the table, amassing 662 million unused vacation days last year alone. It gets worse. A third of those days were forfeited. They could not be rolled over, banked, or paid out — they were purely lost.
The main reason Americans are skipping vacation is workload. Fully 43 percent of workers say they fear returning to a mountain of work. This fear is hardly myth. With all the devices we have connected to our emails, you can watch work pile up in real time and feel overwhelmed.
But the busyness we feel at work may also be undermining our professional success. Employees who forfeited vacation time were less likely than those who didn’t to have been promoted within the last year and to have received a raise or bonus in the last three years. What’s worse is that forfeited time cost American workers $66.4 billion in lost benefits last year — that’s an average of $604 per person. I’m sure we could all figure out something better to do with the $604 than give it back to our employers.
The same holds true for wannabe work martyrs. The term “work martyr” doesn’t carry positive connotations for many, but four-in-ten Americans still say that they want to be viewed as one by their boss. I find this absolutely insane. Even more so when you consider that these very same people were less likely to report receiving a recent raise or bonus and no more likely to be promoted than the more in-touch part of the workforce that think it’s a negative to be viewed as a work martyr.
But the work martyr brand of thinking persists, and will likely continue, thanks to its prevalence with Millennials — women in particular. Nearly half (46%) of Millennial women believe it is a good thing to be seen as a work martyr, far more than the 38 percent average and slightly more than the 43 percent of Millennial men.
It follows as no surprise that just 44 percent of Millennial women took all their vacation time last year, compared to 51 percent of their male counterparts. What is surprising is that Millennial women are more fervent believers in the benefits of time off than Millennial men. They are more likely to agree that vacation alleviates burnout (85% to 76%), increases employee focus (82% to 72%), and improves health and well-being (84% to 77%).
This belief system on paper should extend to behavior. Millennial women, work martyrs, vacation forfeiters, and so many Americans caught up in the cult of busy are missing out on true productivity, which can’t be measured in hours. (In fact, fewer hours may even be good for productivity.)
All this rampant busyness also decreases the odds of innovation. Has anyone ever had a creative breakthrough sitting at their desk? Innovation expert Mitch Ditkoff has interviewed 10,000 people over the last 30 years about where they get their best ideas, and less than two percent of them say at work.
There are so many examples of how vacation can spur those “aha” moments. The inspiration for Starbucks as we know it came from Howard Schultz’s trip to Italy in 1983, where he walked the streets of Verona and became inspired to change the direction of the company. After approaching total burnout, Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom headed to Mexico where a beach stroll with his then-girlfriend-now wife produced the idea to use filters on cell phone photos. Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda told Arianna Huffington it was “no accident that the best idea I’ve ever had in my life — perhaps the best one I’ll ever have in my life — came to me on vacation.”
Vacation can be the best kind of busy — and, if you let it, one that can even change your life. The odds of finding time to get away increase if you plan ahead. Americans who plan out their vacation days are more likely to take all their time off (52%, compared to 40% of non-planners) and take longer breaks. Where the majority of planners take a week or more at a time, non-planners are most likely to take significantly fewer days (0–3) at once. Planners are also happier with their company, job, health and well-being, and their relationships.
Change your brand of busy. You’ll be glad you did — and so will the next friend you run into.
Katie Denis is the senior director and lead researcher of Project: Time Off, a non-profit behavior change campaign aimed at transforming America’s vacation habits. She is the author of a new report, The State of American Vacation 2017.