In Our Words

The Glorification of Busy
The Glorification of Busy

by Mark Redlich, High School Principal and IBDP Coordinator

In my wanderings around campus, it is not uncommon to hear students, teachers, and yes, leaders, talk about how busy they are. Students talk about "staying up late" to study for a test or complete an assignment; teachers talk about reports to write, assignments to grade, or exciting lessons to prepare; administrators talk about new initiatives to improve student learning and events to organize. We are all very "busy" and at times, we are all guilty of wearing this busy-ness as a badge of honor to the point where missing a night's sleep to complete homework is something to be proud of. I am especially concerned about the potential impact this has on young adults. Sleep patterns, self esteem, physical well-being and learning can all be negatively affected.

A quick search of the title of this topic will result in numerous recent articles in reputable publications, including Forbes, Huffington Post and the Stanford Daily, representing different segments of society. The article in the Stanford Daily would seem to indicate that the problem of busy-ness, will not go away when [YIS] students move on to post-secondary pursuits in university. All of these articles would also seem to indicate that this problem is not unique to YIS.

Being busy is not a bad thing and there are certainly examples of "good busy" and "bad busy", but I worry at times, that this is the key metric by which students are encouraged to measure their lives. I'd like to propose some questions that might help address this, listed below in no particular order, which students, parents, and teachers can ask themselves and each other.

1. Could I do less, but do it better?

Whether it is from a fear of missing out or a desire to be really involved in a variety or activities, or a desire to "look good" on applications for post-secondary institutions, students sometimes take on more than they should. This could take the form of selecting what is considered the most "challenging" academic program, or joining six clubs and service activities, or playing in every sports season. I think it is important to ask this question since being involved a little bit in many activities is not the same as demonstrating a sustained commitment or leadership skills in one or two activities that you feel passionate about. The IB advocates that students live "balanced" lives, but this does not have to mean students do everything. Better to do less, but do it well.

2. What language do my parents / teachers use to describe school / activities?

The language adults choose to use can be a powerful tool in developing an ideology and setting a tone around being busy. It concerns me when I hear adults say things to students like "you're not in elementary school anymore" or "you're not in middle school anymore and you need to work harder". Likewise, when students make the transition between academic programs, such as from the IBMYP to the IBDP, and similar language is used to describe the transition, it is a concern. When we use such language, we foster the idea that students should be busier and working harder, but the reality is that grade 6 should not be so much "harder" or busier than grade 5, just as grade 11 should not be that much harder than grade 10. Obviously, there is an increase in rigour and academic challenge as students move between grades, but with a cohesive program and thoughtful transitions, like we have at YIS, students are prepared for the next challenges.

3. What language do I use to describe how I'm feeling and do I compare myself to others?

Naturally, YIS is a school with lots going on and has an engaged student body that wants to be involved and do well academically. But too often I hear students using words like "stressed" to describe how they're feeling. I worry that this mindset is contagious. Maggie Harriman, a Stanford student notes the following in her article: "The Stanford bubble can be a beautiful one... But it's obvious that this insulated bubble makes it all too easy to compare what we're doing — and how we're doing — to the others we know. We are constantly looking for a way to measure ourselves relative to what we see around us. I've caught myself countless times in thinking, "Wow, that person is so much busier than I am. He/she is doing so much more ... I should be busier, too." I worry that at times, students compete to see who has stayed up the latest completing homework, rather than celebrating the student who manages their time, gets work done by due dates, and has a balanced life.

4. Am I getting enough sleep each night?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average teenager needs between 8 and 10 hours of sleep per night to develop and function well each day. If students are staying up late to participate in activities and complete homework and missing out on sleep, this is probably a good indication that they should be looking carefully at their level of busy-ness.

5. Do the things I do give me joy?

Similar to my first point, "could I do less but do it better?", this question requires students to really think about the things that they do and why they do them. I would be the first person to say that there are simply times in life when we sometimes need to do things that are not joyful for each of us; but ultimately, we need to find joy in the things we do. If something does not give you joy, it's probably a good time to be asking, why am I doing this and is it necessary, or is it simply contributing to my busy-ness?

6. Do I plan my time or leave things to the last minute?

My final question is really an ode to procrastination and organization. All of us, adults included, are guilty of this at times. The reality is, however, that if students want to be engaged in school, activities, family and have a social life, it will require a degree of organization: a skill that students need the support of adults at school and home to master. Too often, busy-ness results because too many things have been left to the last minute and it is not possible to do all the things we need to do in the time that remains. Students are developing this skill, but if the routine answer to how are you feeling is "stressed" or "busy", it may be an indication that a further question about organization and procrastination is in order. It may also be a good time for students to ask for help from home or school and remember that everyone is here to support them.

Early in this article I suggested that busy-ness is sometimes used as a key metric by which we collectively measure our lives. I'd like to propose that we use a different standard on which to measure success in place of our collective busy-ness: wellness. How well are we living? How much joy does each day give us? It would be foolish for me to think that the six questions above will provide the solution to our collective state of busy-ness, but I hope at least they give us all pause for thought going forward.