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Busy Is The New Lazy

If you're telling everybody that you're busy all the time, it's time to rethink your ideas about productivity.

"Going on about how busy you are isn’t conversation and doesn’t lead anywhere," writes iDoneThis CCO Janet Choi on her company blog, "except making your conversation partner bored, or worse, peeved."

No one wants to be peeved.

So why do we keep doing all this humblebragging about how busy we are? It's a question Choi investigates thoughtfully: She observes that people who are "legitimately occupied" with work or family rarely play the "too busy" card (clearly, we don't know the same people)—or, may even go out of their way to make a connection because they've been so swamped.

To Choi, when we say "busy," we're really trying to say something else—although what exactly that might be depends on the harried soul that's complaining. She supplies some translations:

I'm busy = I'm important.
Being busy gives people a sense they're needed and significant, Choi says. It's also a sign saying that you're about to be on-ramped into somebody's misguided ego trip.

I'm busy = I'm giving you an excuse.
Saying that you're busy is a handy way to outsource your responsibility to your irresponsibility. Since you're always distracted, you don't have to do anything for anybody.

I'm busy = I'm afraid.
Look above at the "I'm important" part. Whether the speaker knows it or not, complaining of busyness is a subtle cry for help, one that reassures us that yes, we are in demand.

As Choi says, we've begun to regard busyness as a virtue. It's maybe second to exhaustion when it comes to being cool at work. All this shows a major error in perspective, she says, one that takes us away from meaningful work:

It’s easy, even enticing, to neglect the importance of filling our time with meaning, thinking instead that we’ll be content with merely filling our time. We self-impose these measures of self-worth by looking at quantity instead of quality of activity.

In this way, busyness functions as a kind of laziness. When we fill our schedules with appointments and hands with phones, we divest ourselves of downtime. When we're endlessly doing, it's hard to be mindful of what we're doing.

How to eradicate busyness

Of course, it's a interdependent issue. It's hard to have downtime if your bosses subscribe to what Anne Marie Slaughter calls our time macho culture, "a relentless competition to work harder, stay later, pull more all-nighters, travel around the world and bill the extra hours that the international date line affords you."

But don't let that excuse suffice. You can convince your bosses—if you know how to approach the conversation.

Busyness is Not a Virtue

[Image: Flickr user Eje Gustafsson]

Add New Comment


  • Bob Davis-Mayo

    Thanks, Drake, for highlighting Janet's comments.  Yes, as a consultant I've seen such "busy-ness" become a chief tactic for incoherent "business."  When we believe this busyness illusion deeply enough it becomes a delusion and colleagues are far too eager to join us in collusion.   Such waste.
    --Bob http://www.davismayoassociates...

  • Derwinism

    I wish I was that important to say I’m busy.

    I wish I had the opportunity to outsource my responsibilities.

    And complaining of busyness, heck I wish I was less busy.

    Can't it just simply be that we are actually busy.

    From taking the kids to school, work is an average day 12/15 hour days)
    (Not to mention some weekend work)
    Little league coach/event photographer on the weekends/
    Many renovation projects at home. Graphic designer
    and video editor late evenings. Web developer for some
    existing clients. Trying to launch a business.
    I just began training for a mini triathlon and trying to squeeze
    family time in between. No to mention trying to visit my parents.

    I’m sorry I can't help, I’m just a bit busy.


  • Brad Sayers

    I'm busy = I feel alive (ie, not a victim of negative forces I can't control)

  • Stefan

    I like the point you make, and similar to the myth of human multitasking it just shows how far from good today's pressurised business environment truly is. Unfortunately some people believe that if you are not constantly busy (or at least appear to be) you are no good, how wrong that is.

  • Alison

    I work as a freelancer, in a community of freelancers, and for us I'm busy = Things are going well. We ask one another, "Are you busy?" as a way to confirm that business good and we're doing alright. For me, there's a differenced for me between saying "I'm busy" and "I'm too busy." Some of the things in this article feel like they belong in the "too busy" zone.

    However...having spent many years in corporate cultures, I agree there's a macho attitude about being constantly busy. And it's led to some tough expectations around how much we work.

  • Brandy Anderson

    Great article! I completely agree that this is often the case. However, I'd like to stand up for the people who really ARE too busy; for them, the translation is more like I'm Busy = I Put Too Much on My Plate and Now I Have No Social Life. 

    I'm in this group of people, and I would much rather say "I'm free all next week, when do you want to have dinner?" than what I really say which is "My schedule is pretty packed until Friday night two weeks from now..." Soon enough I'll reduce my schedule and I'm very much looking forward to omitting "I'm crazy busy" from my conversations! 

  • Chris Reich

    A key translation was missed:

    I'm busy = You're not important

    Chris Reich, TeachU

  • Fatemeh Fakhraie

    There's also another facet:

    I'm busy = I'm not going to tell you to your face that I don't like you or whatever you've invited me to. It's supposed to be face-saving strategy that makes you look like a d-bag. But what's the alternative? 

  • Martin Haworth

    I'd go further and suggest that being busy is an admission of failure.

    A lack of focus; decision-making; delegation; ability to say 'no'; poor recruitment standards; indiscipline in employees; inadequate performance and more - where to start!

    When I hear this when coaching all from supervisors to senior executives, I rub my hands with glee!

  • mark

    I've definitely caught myself going on about how busy I am. I've taken heat from friends over it and realized I missed out on invitations - or requests from loved ones for legitimate help - because I "seemed so busy" they didn't want to ask. That definitely hurts, but, on the flip side, people know not to waste my time. And frankly, me saying I'm busy ins't always a show or a front or a cry -- I'm juggling work, freelance initiatives, gym time (a must), the requisite and consuming reading that comes with my job function and as well as actively seeking personal development projects (taking a class, learning something, etc.) I am curious and active and engaged, so I don't have time to do everything I'd like, i.e., busy. Obviously I'm not busy 24-7 but frankly, not being busy with SOMETHING means you're probably wasting time. Perhaps another word (occupied? engaged? committed?) might soften it? Overall, I think it's about balance. I do make time to chill, and make a point to let people know that while I am busy, I WILL make time for you if you ask. If people are afraid to ask though, or find that me being transparent about the many things on my plate obnoxious, that's out of my control. 

  • Patrick

    Wouldn't replying to this article be a waste of time for you, since you are so busy!

  • PC

    Spoken like a true narcissist, no wonder why you dont get invited anywhere, people are probably tired of hearing how busy you are.

  • James

    Funny how my "busyness" led me to read this article.  I spend a bit of time each morning on Prismatic, and wonder if my morning perusal is another evidence of just how busy I can be...

  • Paul H. Burton

    It's my experience that people largely rely about their busyness because they're under-productive. My work as a time management consultant puts me in front of a lot of people. The ones who come to my seminars that are productive are looking for ways to increase their command of the day. They're open minded to new ideas and positively oriented to quieting down their physical and mental worlds so they can get more done and enjoy what they do more.

    Alternatively, those who continually object to every possible method for increasing their productivity play the "too busy" or the "don't understand my world" cards. These people come to the seminar, but few want to effect change. Thus, my conclusion that being "too busy" is just an excuse for being under-productive and, unfortunately, unrewarded in their careers.

  • Phil Simon

    Nice post. I believe that most of the time busyness is a function of being afraid. What might save you five weeks down the road you won't spend five hours learning today.