“Look Busy”

When I was 19 and a college dropout I took a job at a video store. At first I worked only weekends and soon made my way to working part-time throughout the week. The job didn’t pay too well, but it was income and I needed something to do while I developed my next move, (which became going to Sarah Lawrence College and setting me on one magical journey through life). My coworkers were mostly young nerdy types. We all loved movies. We all had a lot of energy and a lot of hobbies.

I had this dream of my workday being like Randal in the movie Clerks: a lot of hanging out, talking movies, and a laidback job overall. However, I remember my boss sending me out into the store with a wet rag to dust the shelves. The shelves were not dusty. In fact, we kept the place in great shape. There was often not much around the store that had to get done except stock the shelves as movies were returned, but the Daily Task List included dusting the shelves, so that’s what we were ordered to do.

Also, there were no chairs in the building. There was one bench in the back of the room that was reserved for costumers- the bench faced a TV that was showing childrens movies on repeat. We had to stand all day because sitting made it look like we had nothing to do.

Well, we had nothing to do anyway.

And even if there were things to do, we didn’t always have to be doing them. Life doesn’t work that way. Humans require processing time, much more than we typically give ourselves. And we need downtime. Downtime is great for our bodies to scan our systems, see what we need, and balance ourselves out. Desk jobs are terrible for our backs and knees, but so are jobs where we stand all day. Humans were meant to move. Machines were meant to stay in one place. We all know that the industrial revolution helped us down the road of making humans machines. Punch in. Punch out, etc. But we were designed to farm, scavenge, and use our hands. The human brain includes this incredible part called the Prefrontal Cortex, something other animals don’t have. It allows us to problem solve to a high degree. When we don’t use it, we get depressed. Standing or sitting all day is more taxing than we think it ought to be.

I’ll get back to that in a minute, but I’ll tell you that I quit that job because I hated looking busy. I wanted to BE busy. I became a substitute teacher and loved it. I was busy. I had purpose. And when I had down time I was encouraged to use it to read, sit, breathe, go for a walk, or whatever else I WANTED to do with some spare time.

Since those days I’ve had a variety and long list of jobs. Some I stayed with for years, others very briefly. During my semester break in graduate school this year I worked at the Barnes and Noble Café for the holiday season.

My biggest issue with the café is this concept: “Look busy”. My manager said, “You should never be standing around. You can always be cleaning or restocking.”

Well, I could also always be practicing guitar, meditating, writing my novel, or traveling- things on my list of much higher importance than restocking the cups. But even those things that I love doing I don’t do all the time. Why? Because energy ebbs and flows, as does focus and connection. Some days I’m thinking about a lot of things. Some days I’m tired. Some days my back hurts. This is called being human, and looking busy is not what being human is about.

Many of you have probably experienced this conditioning at one point or another. I also experienced it when I had a desk job. The goal was to survive the 40-hour work week. Even if things were slow, you had to get your 40 hours in, so you shuffled papers, surfed the internet reading blogs (maybe like this one right here), and do whatever else you can to make the week go by.

Well, in truth, energy ebbs and flows with the day, sometimes there isn’t anything to be done, and sometimes we need a break. Other times the lines are long, the emails are rolling in, we have a presentation to finish, or something else that keeps us busy. We ARE busy. That’s work. Work comes in waves.

Looking busy is more exhausting than being busy. Most people enjoy being busy. Being busy gives us purpose. You may ask someone, “How are things?” and they’ll say. “Good. Busy!” They’ll shrug as if this is the best thing you can get out of a day. It’s tiring, but it’s worthwhile.

Being busy and looking busy are very different. With technology, work can be done at lightning speeds. We need to be cultivating a culture of respite, reflection, and spiritual growth. What if we could take all that time that we’re looking busy to be meditating, making a healthy meal, talking with coworkers or friends, going for a walk or doing yoga to loosen up our bodies and invigorate us for the second half of the day? Now, that sounds like living! We aren’t looking busy. We actually ARE busy, although maybe not sitting at the desk or behind the counter, but we’re busy nonetheless.

If you own a business or manage a team, please consider a discussion about looking busy and how it can be deleted from the workday. If employees knew you’d prefer them to take actual breaks that involve them engaging with the world, studies show they will in fact be BETTER employees. People get more done when they can listen to what their bodies and minds need. You as a manager or owner can do so much, you can give to people and earn respect, simply by encouraging busy-ness to not affect business. Business is good. Busy-ness is bad. Simple to say; harder to catch, but worth working on for our overall health.

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