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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

5 Better Responses to "How Are You?" Than "Busy"

Our default answer to “How are you?” in the workplace is usually something along the lines of, “I’m stressed/busy/tired/overworked.” We’re being honest: More than half of all working adults are so burnt out they’re worried it’s impacting their health.

There are three problems with saying so, however. First, it loses its potency. Yeah, you’re stressed, so what—you said that yesterday, and the week before, and the month before that. Second, saying you’re stressed or busy actually makes you feel more stressed or busy. Third, we’ve created a “cult of busy:” There’s a cultural expectation that, if you’re not stressed or busy, you’re slacking.

So, let’s stop it. The next time someone asks how you’re doing (which will probably happen, oh, in the next two hours), don’t complain about being swamped—especially if the question is coming from your boss or a colleague who you ultimately want to impress. Instead, choose from these five replies.

1. “I’m having a productive day.”

If you’re worried your co-workers or boss will assume you need more to do if you don’t talk about your heavy workload, go for this response. You’re still implying you have a lot going on, but you’re demonstrating that you’re handling it. You also sound happy to be working and checking boxes on your to-do list, which everyone in the office will appreciate. Maybe you’ll even inspire them to give similarly upbeat responses to the same question.

2. “I’m working on X project and…”

Sometimes you’re not being productive. You might be stumped by a project, or you actually feel overwhelmed by how much you have to get done. In this case, putting a positive spin on the situation could hurt you. If the person who asks you how you’re doing has the power to help, say, “I’m so glad you’re checking in! I’m working on X problem and I’d love your insight on/support with…”

If he or she can’t help, stick to, “I’m working on these X things. How are you?”

3. “I’m a little overloaded right now, but I expect things to calm down in a week when X is done.”

This is especially good when you think someone might have ulterior motives in asking how you are (i.e., they want to know if you can help with more work). You definitely don’t want to misrepresent your situation, but you don’t want to sound like you’re dodging work, either.

Explain you’re at full capacity right now but hint that the person could approach you again once things have calmed down. It makes you sound more on top of things than just a vague, panicked, “I’m so busy!”

4. “I’ve got a lot to do, but I’m excited for the results.”

This reply makes it difficult for whoever just asked you how you were doing not to get caught up in your energetic attitude. You’re acknowledging that you’re occupied and simultaneously pointing out good things will come of it. “I’m busy” or “I’m stressed” is a complaint—this is a victory lap in advance. Bonus: Projecting your future success will make you look more competent.

5. “I’m stressed.”

Wait, isn’t this what we’ve been harping on about not saying?

Yup. In very rare occasions, you can use “I’m stressed/I’m busy/I’m tired/I’m overworked”—when there’s no substitute for these expressions. You’re the founder of a startup and you’ve just pulled your fourth all-nighter in a week. Okay, you’re busy and tired. You’re in charge of a new marketing campaign that’s failing miserably. Okay, you’re stressed. You’ve been spending every weekend laboring on a project running behind schedule. Okay, you’re overworked.

By saving these statements for the most extreme situations, people will actually take them seriously. You don’t have to be Pollyanna all the time. Just, well, most of the time.

It’s hard to find a professional who doesn’t feel stressed, busy, tired, or overworked. Dropping these responses from your vocabulary, except when they’re truly needed, will make you feel calmer and appear more capable. Win-win.

Photo of busy bees courtesy of Shutterstock.

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