“I know you’re busy, so I’ll make this quick”

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This is a sign that I’ve been getting it wrong. When people start talking to me by saying, “I know you’re busy, but…” then I feel like I have already failed a little bit.

To be clear: I think busy is good. In this profession, being busy is an indicator that you’re working on something that you’re excited about, maybe something of real value or meaning. When you’re busy, that means you always have something to get to, and in the moments when you are choosing to work, there’s no reason to dawdle. Busy means that you don’t want to waste your work time on things that aren’t important. That’s not a bad thing at all. So yeah, when I’m working, I am busy in the sense that I always have something of consequence to work on. And when I’m busy I’m not going to put much time into things I have to do but I think are not important. I own that. But I also am pretty good at containing my work within reasonable working hours, for my own health and happiness and the people around me, at making a point to not fill my plate so much that I’m overwhelmed. Maybe I’m little uncomfortable (being in a place of discomfort attempting new things is always good, right?), but not overwhelmed or overworked. I’ve been juggling balls as an academic for a few decades, so I should be pretty good at being busy as a juggler without it looking stressful, I hope.

While busy is good, but being overbusy is bad. Rushing things that shouldn’t be rushed is bad. Not making time for things that should be high priority is bad.

This is where I’ve been clearly getting it wrong. Because once in a while, someone who I work with will say, “I know your busy, but…” and then it’s clear to me that I’m shedding overbusy vibes into the ether and other people are correctly picking up those vibes. This is most definitely a problem, because this means that these folks — who are most definitely a priority and most definitely worthy of my time — are reluctant to ask for my time because they’re picking up vibes that I seem too busy for them. Which I am most definitely not!

I suspect this isn’t just my problem. I bet a lot of other folks, who have prioritized being accessible to the people they work with, might also have trouble from folks approaching them for the support they need. (Also, sometimes If I’m just sitting at my computer writing, that looks too busy to be approached? I mean, what else would I be doing at my desk if I’m not talking to someone?) That said, I’m an exuberant guy and you could probably guess how I’m feeling by just looking at me and listening to me. So if I’m shedding vibes that I’m too busy for people that matter, then I need to own that this is a problem on me to fix.

The nature of this problem must have evolved since I recently stepped out of the classroom. It’s important for students in our courses to know that we have made the time available to work with them (though being accessible doesn’t absolve you from doing the actual work to support the students who don’t reach out to you). But even though I’m not teaching, there still is a big variety people in my orbit, and others who I am in shared satellite status with, and it’s important for me that these folks realize that it’s okay for them to reach out to me and that I have time for them.

This is a little complex because there are plenty of people who want some of my time, and others who feel entitled to it, who I honestly just don’t have the time for. But I don’t have much of a problem anymore telling these people that I don’t have the time. I have boilerplate for that, and sometimes, I just don’t have to respond. But I don’t think these people approach me because I’m appearing too approachable! Perhaps this is just a separate issue that I’ve already learned how to deal with.

I also realize that there are gendered and racialized layers here, and that a lot of folks will simply perceive me as less approachable or supportive on account of my identity. And when it comes to students expecting help and support, this results in disparities involving invisible labor and cultural taxation, students who could perhaps get the same kind of support for me but aren’t asking me for it because of things involving my gender, ethnicity, age, and perhaps unfortunate busyness vibes. This is a real equity issue which happens all over the place, and one teensy starting point in my university system, at least, is the recognition that cultural taxation is a part of faculty workload, which can result in reassigned time from teaching to reckon with the demands of this kind of labor. So this “I know you’re busy…” problem isn’t just about me supporting the people who I’m working closely with. It’s about my role in the broader community, and it’s a thing that other people with identities like mine (looking at you, fellow white men) need to recognize, as a first step.

There’s a lot to chew on here. There are broader mechanisms that can be implemented to support more equitable division of this kind of labor. But for the people who are already working with me, it might help if I just tried harder to look more chill? Is that even a thing? I dunno.

2 thoughts on ““I know you’re busy, so I’ll make this quick”

  1. I have been thinking about solutions to this for a while. I am someone who often avoids asking people I perceive (or just assume) are very busy for help. I think it always helps to explicitly tell people about the best way to communicate with you. One potential way to go (that may not be a universal solution but might help) would be making a statement (on your physical office door/in your email signature/in your syllabus) to the effect of “I am never too busy for you to ask me for help/if I have time to talk. If I don’t have time for your request, I will let you know or direct you to another person/solution, but please don’t be afraid to ask” or just “If my door is open, you can ask me things.” One idea, anyway.

  2. I wonder if there could be an additional factor at play here too: we typically think of being ‘busy’ as the desirable, optimal state, and that we all should be busy. And so by implying that someone may be too busy to help us but we think they’ll probably do so anyways, it’s a subtle double-compliment. “You’re virtuous enough to be very busy, and also virtuous enough to help me in spite of that” probably feels like a good strategy to start a request with on some level.

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