TPYMIGS: The Busiest Person in the World

One of the things I loved about the response to my post on The People You Meet in Grad School was the number of individuals who were willing to admit (either in comments or email) to being one of these people.  Grad school and academic life both attracts and breeds particular types of personality dysfunctions, and being honest with ourselves about which ones we identify with is probably the first step to growth, or so I’ve heard.

I’ve been examining another academic specimen of late, and that examination has sometimes been a self-examination. The Busiest Person in the World is the person who breezes by in you the hallway.  If you try to catch zie’s attention, zie will say “I’m sooooo sorry, I just can’t talk right now” and then spend the next 10 minutes telling you how busy zie is.  The thing is that this person doesn’t necessarily have an observably fuller schedule than you.  You may be taking a similar course load, attending a similar number of conferences, teaching the same number of sections, and have similar family responsibilities, but TBPW (I’m all about the acronyms today) seems to live at DEFCON 5.  Zie is always sleep deprived, always barely making deadlines, but it would never occur to you that incompetence is playing a role here.  Because TBPW has turned harried exhaustion into performance art, a monument to zie’s commitment and passion and a reprimand to everyone who isn’t as tired and overworked as zie is, because clearly you all just don’t care or try hard enough.

I think there are various reasons why people engage in this behavior.  Some crave the sense of righteousness that comes from being a martyr to one’s work.  Some are addicted to adrenaline and can’t seem to finish a project or a semester without the catharsis of barely getting everything done on time.  And some are conditioned to think that the appearance of exhaustion grants them favor in the eyes of their colleagues and relatives.  I tend to occupy the latter category, coming from a huge family that always has too much going on, in which most members own their own businesses and yet rarely take vacation.  Everyone is late to everything because OMG, SO BUSY, and idleness is a kind of sin.  Before I started going to counseling, I used to sit around thinking of stuff to tell my parents so that I wouldn’t look like I was wasting my time.  We aren’t just that way about work either.  Overextending oneself, staying up all night to create a Martha Stewart Experience on holidays or birthdays was how you showed your love as well.

So let’s go over some red flags here, shall we?

Frequent illness and refusal to take time off. I’m not talking about people with actual chronic health problems.  I’m talking about people who come to work incubating streptococcal bacteria or norovirus.  Students are frequently terrible about this.  I love the ones who sneeze and drip and look miserable in my general direction as they hand their assignment in, proof of how much they sacrificed in order to make the deadline (this is a big reason why I don’t do late penalties or paper submissions anymore).

Poor time management that borders on self sabotage. TBPW often spends more time complaining about how much work they have to do than actually doing it.  This is especially true if zie is addicted to the adrenaline rush of having to stay up all night to complete a project or working up to the very last second.  Though they may not realize they’re doing it, TBPW may have a preternatural ability to orchestrate the conditions for an all-nighter or a panic-fueled rush to the finish by finding 1400 things that MUST BE DONE NOW before a big project can even be started, by obsessing over small details at the expense of big picture concerns, or by refusing to set reasonable priorities.  Zie’s philosophy seems to be that if it didn’t come close to killing you, it didn’t really count.

Radically underestimating the amount that can be accomplished in a set period of time. My boss’s book was due to the publisher on Wednesday, which meant we had to get it in the last FedEx shipment at 7:00 Tuesday.  At 9:00pm Monday night, he expressed the desire to edit the entire 500 page manuscript in the twelve hours left before he was supposed to hand it off to me for final proofreading (yeah right) and formatting.  He was also sick at the time and had spent the past hour editing a single photograph, an obsessive moment that I’ll cop to enabling (and sharing).  He asked if I would also be able to read the entire thing through for editing problems between 9:00 am and 7:00 pm (in addition to converting all photo files to TIFFs, re-paginating the manuscript, re-doing the Table of Contents, updating the captions list, and printing out three copies of the thing).  I actually said “no problem” without irony.  It’s been quite a week for both of us.

Constantly talking about how tired and overworked zie is. This behavior is especially insidious when it includes belittling the experiences of other people in earshot.  I was once in the vicinity of two colleagues, both of whom are parents, who had a 20 minute conversation, with many single and childless people listening in (we were in the writing center break room at the time, so there was hardly an expectation of privacy), about how women without children just don’t have their priorities straight and have no idea what being busy is really like.  Now, I have nothing but respect for graduate student and academic mothers and what they have to go through, but this behavior still struck me as gross.  Those of us in the throes of TBPW-dom are doing performance art, and this sometimes makes us assholes.  If someone is doing this in your presence, don’t compete.  Politely express concern for their exhaustion, but don’t play the game.  Even if you win, you lose.  If you got 2 hours of sleep, they got 1.

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, take 2 Chill Pills and make an appointment with a massage therapist or a therapist of some variety.  You are a danger to yourself and others.  If you find yourself in the same office or house as this person, give them a wide berth, and woe betide you if this person happens to have some immediate supervisory capacity over you.

Certainly, there are times when work piles up, when the midnight oil must be burned due to no failing of our own, but so often this sort of stuff becomes competitive.  When we start taking too much pride in the physical and psychic scars we bear from our efforts and even begin lording them over others, we become toxic colleagues and teachers and toxic to ourselves.

Photo Credit:  mirjoran, Flickr Creative Commons.

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9 thoughts on “TPYMIGS: The Busiest Person in the World

  1. I was always one of those who waited until the last minute to start things. At first it might have been the adrenaline rush–or rather, that I needed the challenge of the time limit in order to find the work interesting–but I think later it was just because I really, really didn’t want to do it. That’s when I dropped out of grad school. 😛

    I don’t consider myself chronically busy or overworked–I just have executive functioning problems. I know I need to write the paper, I know I am CAPABLE of writing the paper, I just… can’t make myself start the paper. Maybe it’s an ADHD thing; I know I’m not the only person with this problem. And it’s a big reason why I’m not in school anymore, and why the thought of ever going back fills me with dread.

    1. Yeah, I think that may be a different animal altogether. Did you have that problem with all types of school work or just writing? Writing anxiety is a HUGE factor in procrastination for a lot of people.

      1. Well, most of the classes I took were writing-heavy. I loathe making powerpoint or any other kind of presentations, but anything with small bite-sized pieces of information, like tests or exercises or short-answer questions, I did a lot better with. People would always tell me to break other tasks down into small pieces, but my panic response would always take over when I tried to do that.

      2. great piece! i’m still an undergrad, but i definitely see/exhibit some of those behaviors.

        question: do you have any suggestions (or could you point me to any resources) about writing anxiety? i’m a college senior preparing to apply to grad school and i’ve noticed that, while i’ve always completed all sorts of other tasks on time or sometimes in advance, i have difficulty starting writing assignments.

        i’ll mull over the details of a piece weeks before i write it and get excited about a polished final product, but until i’m forced by an immediate deadline, it’s difficult to start…friends guess that because i’m very meticulous with my writing, i let the fear of writing something sub-standard overwhelm me.

        i’d really like to fix this because i know that, as a low-income student with some chronic health conditions, this behavior is something i definitely have control over. (i actually forced myself to do this a little with a prospectus due for my thesis last week…i started a few days before and had half done before the last day or two.)

        sorry for the long comment!

      3. @Mighty,

        That’s a big question, something that probably deserves its own post, so I’ll be mulling it over for a bit. You might go pick up a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is my favorite writing advice book (and honestly the only one I recommend). She’s hilarious and offers some great practical advice.

  2. notemily is right about the ADHD thing: the last three are all symptoms of ADHD as well, especially if you change the last one to not just talking about how overworked and exhausted one is, but also feeling that way.

    1. Interesting! As I was writing it, I thought it hewed closer to a description of your standard Type A borderline workaholic, but now I totally see what you’re talking about. I guess there’s no reason why someone can’t be both at once.

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