An expression popped up on my timeline the other day that made me think twice. “Are you glamourising overwhelm?” asked the Canadian success coach Heather Petherick. (Check her out if you run your own business. She’s great.) What is this, I thought to myself, “glamourising overwhelm”? What does this mean? Buying some statement earrings for your appointments diary? Vajazzling your MacBook? I didn’t get it.
Then it clicked what she meant: that thing when you’re virtually showing off to yourself how insanely busy you are and how incredible it is that you have so much on your plate, while you also flirt with a nervous breakdown. Been there, done that, thought about starting my own organic T-shirt business (even though it’s 3pm and I haven’t done anything on the to-do list for my existing projects).
The idea of “overwhelm” as a noun is quite new. As in: “I’m suffering from overwhelm here.” Rather than: “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed.” The noun status gives it a whole new value – “overwhelm” is now a monster that creeps up on us.
The over-achieving sister of overwhelm is “busywork”. This is work that qualifies as neverending and constantly self-replicating. It’s the work you do when you are not getting any work done: emails, social media, unnecessary admin, extra research, re-reading things you already read properly “just to double check”. Busywork is the enemy of ever achieving anything significant, important or meaningful. It eats into your day and keeps you busy, busy, busy running on the same hamster wheel, always occupied but never quite doing the thing you set out to do.
As the more self-aware influencers will tell you, the true secret of success is doing as little as possible. Luxury is less, not more – that is real glamour
The worst thing about busywork and the glamourising of overwhelm is that it has become a standard of social-media life. There’s a fine line between all the motivational and inspirational posts that are floating around and sheer overload. There’s a competitive edge to the “hashtag hustle” that’s going on.
Some people use social-media posts to keep themselves accountable and show their flaws as well as their successes. (See broadcaster Harriet Minter’s inspiring Instagram account.) Others use it to remind themselves – and others – that busywork is the biggest waste of time. (Emma Gannon, author of the forthcoming The Multi-Hyphen Method, about portfolio careers, is an expert on this.) Looking elsewhere, I can’t help thinking that some of the hashtags that explode in my timeline are advertising one thing: “I’m busy, busy, busy!” And I do think: “Yes. So busy you had loads of time to post about how busy you are? And source 67 hashtags that fit?”
I often look at myself and at other women and think, “The only person who is going to take away this overwhelm is us.” I see so many women who are busy for the sake of it, reassuring themselves that that makes them conscientious and productive, while avoiding the thing they’d really love to try that is risky or time-consuming or difficult. It’s really easy to hide behind overwhelm. I know because I did it for years.
As the more self-aware influencers will tell you, the true secret of success is doing as little as possible. Luxury is less, not more – that is real glamour. By outsourcing, delegating or eliminating busywork (think “How essential is this?” or “How quickly can I get this unimportant task done?”), you buy yourself time to do the work that really matters and that really moves things forwards for you. Make the phonecall you’re scared to make. Chase up that contact who was eluding you. Do the research into the organic T-shirt company if you’re serious about it. Don’t worry. I’m not serious about the organic T-shirts. Although I might just get one for myself that says “Busywork is for losers”.