I used to work with a woman who I wasn’t too fond of. It wasn’t anything personal; just not my cup of tea.

For example, she was an attention-seeker and I struggle to warm to anyone with that trait. The kind of person who replied to a client email late at night with a whole load of senior bods copied in, just to prove how dedicated she was to the job. The next morning she’d readily welcome the pitying looks from her colleagues, who she viewed as being work-shy because they couldn’t match her pace. Of course what she couldn’t see was how naïve this email habit made her look; a pushover who the client could take further advantage of because she was evidently willing to work all hours.

We all know someone like this, and I provide the context for good reason. One day I overheard a colleague asking how she was doing, to which she responded: “yeah, good. Busy.” 

I felt myself repress an eye-roll. Here we go again, I thought, another invitation to boast about what a high-achiever you are because you’re so busy working hard. But what made me catch myself mid eye-roll was the awful realisation that I was, in fact, just like her. Not with the 2am emails, but with my auto-pilot response of being “busy”.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realised how much I had been using that word to mask the reality of how I was feeling whenever somebody asked the simple question: “how are you?”

It was certainly true: I was busy. Busy struggling to manage my workload, unable to contain it within reasonable working hours, meaning I’d always come into work early and leave late. Busy in the sense that I was chaotic at work, experiencing regular heart palpitations while sat at my desk and lying wide awake in the early hours of the morning, fuelled by a feeling of panic.

Actually, a more accurate way to answer that probing question should have been this: I am miserable. Truthfully I had been unhappy in my job for years, but I was too busy to explore how I should go about changing that situation, let alone able to find time to take a long hard look in the mirror and indulge myself in thinking about these rather unsettling feelings for 20 minutes. So instead I muffled my emotions with distractions and spent several years trying to suppress those increasingly noisy voices of doubt about my career path.

I was so very busy with my job that I let my social life suffer and became less communicative – less me – with those closest to me. My relationships with men were patchy at best, and destructive at their worst. I was allowing my values to be swayed too: no longer could I consider myself reliable because I’d often bail last minute on my netball match. You know how that story goes… Sorry, I need to work late.

The result was I spent four years being ‘busy’, unconvincingly trying to convince myself that I was happy in my job. Until one day, when something inside me snapped and there was no going back. I had a breakdown, due to years of repressed emotions and feelings which I’d tried to mask with distractions.

Over the last 18 months I have embraced doing far less with my time and focussed on meaningful and rewarding activities. That could be something as small as setting aside time to listen to a podcast without any other interruptions, or as big as organising a weekend away with friends because I genuinely want to spend time with them. Whole weeks can pass by without any social engagements, other weeks might be peppered with a dinner or event. Which suits me nicely.

The big differences that support my new mindset are these: I am no longer working in a job that’s draining my sanity and livelihood, nor desperately trying to cram my diary with things, just for the sake of keeping busy. And the biggest shift of all: I don’t use the word ‘busy’ as a badge of pride.

Since leaving my job I’ve seen that old colleague a few times. She still isn’t my cup of tea, so no change there. But these days I think about her differently, and wonder how much her being busy was a disguise for something else. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, because I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone.