Stop Saying You Are “Busy”

"Stop Saying You're Busy" with succulent

I never want to hear or say “I’m busy” again.

I’m just now getting back into the swing of publishing a blog post every week. I’ve been “busy.” Although in all honesty, I have a lot going on in my life, I’m not so “busy” that I couldn’t sit down to write even just a little bit everyday. Being busy is my excuse for letting something slide to the side while I do other things. Most people do this. They say, “I’ve been so busy” when they forget your event they promised to be at. They say, “I’ve got so much going on right now” when they don’t want to say “no” to plans. It also goes the other way. Someone will say they are so “busy” because they want you and everyone else to think they are, whether they are or not.

Genuine busy-ness is unpleasant. Even workaholics don’t want to be busy.

If you enjoy most of what you do, the work doesn’t feel busy.

There is work, and there is busy work. Busy work is generally meaningless. If you say “I’m busy” instead of “I was working on signing a few contracts that will bring my office a lot of new business,” you devalue the work you are doing. If you say “I’m busy that day” instead of “I am spending time with family that day” you are devaluing the activity of being with family.

Really think about the things you value. If your work genuinely feels like busy work, then it’s probably time for a new attitude about work, or a career change. If you think hanging out with friends and family is work, you are either 1) an asshole, or 2) surrounding yourself with the wrong people.

If you say I’m busy unprompted or as a response to “how you are doing?” you really aren’t responding to the question and your attitude on life probably revolves around the idea that successful people are busy and don’t have time to enjoy themselves. “I’m busy” isn’t a meaningful response or statement. It genuinely doesn’t mean anything remarkable. Everyone is busy.

There is another reason why people say this and it has a lot to do with perceived success and devaluing other people’s time and skills.

If you say “I’m busy” and you mean “I want you to think I’m in demand and important” you need to stop right there. I’m going to keep this as short as possible (not likely). Lording your perceived busyness over people like you’re the only busy person, like you are more important because of your busyness, or you genuinely have nothing better to say about your life, is annoying. You probably hate it when people say it to you, so why say it to someone else? I used to do this. Actually, I used to do this very recently.

Everyone is busy and no one’s “busyness” is more important than anyone else’s. It’s a loaded statement. My busy could be 16 credits of 400 level courses, running a house, a blog, and working two part-time jobs. Someone else’s busy is taking 12 credits, living on campus, working less than eight hours a week, and going hunting every weekend. Both of these scenarios qualify as “busy.” Yet come from different perspectives. My busy is doable and while I’m stressed sometimes, I no longer consider it busy because I realize I have a lot of time for myself hidden away during the day and some things I considered busy were leisure time. The other person’s busy is relaxing to me, but could be overwhelming to them. My busy is not more important than theirs, and may not be busy at all.

There were two major interactions that gave me some busyness perspective.

I started doing something I enjoyed with a group of people, but scheduling was difficult. One of the leaders of the group was constantly saying “oh but I’m so busy” as an excuse for being late and if someone had scheduling conflicts because of work, classes, homework, or other life obligations they would say “I’m busy too” or “so and so and I work and do all of this other stuff and we still make time for this.”

It was having someone else’s busyness lorded over me and the other group members that made me conscious of how often people declare how busy they are. It made me realize that even though I knew they may not be as busy as me, or some of the other people in the group by my standards, they were the only one saying it and it wasn’t about being busy, it was about power and dismissal. Someone needing to take up extra hours at work so they can afford rent that month wasn’t busy enough for this person. This person’s time was more important than everyone else’s’ and it translated through the phrase “I’m busy.” It had nothing to do with who was more busy. It had everything to do with shaming people for not being able to sacrifice time and money for the leader who thought their time was more valuable.

Now in this case, I’m sure this was not the conscious meaning. I doubt they meant that their busyness was more important. The problem was the carelessness in which they tossed the phrase “I’m busy” around and the general cultural problem we have with equating importance with what we do and don’t do.

There was one weekend a few terms ago I decided to do nothing and treat myself to a slow pace. I have two jobs, I take 15+ credits at school every term, and participate in academic extracurriculars. My days started at eight am and ended around eight pm, sometimes later depending on my extracurriculars. My schedule was so hectic I don’t know how I survived that term. So that calm Saturday, I sat on the couch and watched Youtube, did some ultra light cleaning, and didn’t change out of my PJ’s until noon. When one of my roommates came home from staying over at a friends house, looking freshly awake around one pm, he asked me what I had done that day. I said, “Not much, I’m just taking it easy today.” His response was “must be nice” with a tight lipped smile and then turned around and shut himself in his room.

This was enraging coming from someone who sleeps until at least 11 am everyday. I said nothing but let it brew inside me. I felt as if I couldn’t take time to not be busy without being ridiculed for not being busy. I didn’t say anything because maybe he worked all night and did homework all morning and was bitter about it and took it out on me. I had no idea what caused him to say what he said in the way he said it. It’s not entirely his fault it came off as though he thought his perceived busyness was superior to my slow day, because that’s how we are conditioned to think.

I used to pack so much into my day. I usually had about five minutes to drive from my classes to my job everyday. I had one of the ridiculous happy planners that was massive. I would put things I didn’t have to remember to do in the planner to make it look fuller. The planner created busy work for me as well as made it look like I was busier (you know, in case someone looked into my planner). There was a point when I wrote every tiny detail about my days into this planner, I’m actually glad I never took pictures of that.

"What a beautiful day" on a happy planner with a yellow legal pad with writing on it underneath.
My massive happy planner, and ,my yellow legal pad, largely used for the same reasons, but I insisted on having both.

The planner I use now is much smaller (will fit in a small handbag) and simpler. It doesn’t have dates and I can only write on pages where I actually have things to do. I don’t mind that the dates are non consecutive and the pages aren’t completely full.

We think that importance and success comes from what we do.

Instead of quality of work, we are looking at quantity of work. The more we do, the more in demand we are, the more important we are and important people are successful. Its this nasty rabbit hole of overextending ourselves (Or telling people we are) for the sake of status that honestly isn’t worth it. You should love what you do and one or two really awesome projects are worlds more important than five or six rushed and possibly subpar projects that you didn’t enjoy doing. Busy has become part of our identity. We identify with what we do, not what we are. This is a dangerous and sad way to self identify. I am a writer, not five essays and eight queued blog posts this week. I am not my busyness, and I don’t want busyness to be part of my identity.

Americans and many other countries, fall into the trap of a “busy identity” where we become so busy its part of our identity, or we romanticize the busy lifestyle and telling people how “busy” you are is like saying “do you know who I am?”

We treat busyness as an ideal and it feeds our desire to be superior to others.

Anyone who does a job that is perceived to be lesser than ours is lazy. It’s not a reflection of the job or a system, we see it as a reflection of how that person is lazy. Being busy makes us feel like we are better than those we perceive as working in jobs we think are beneath us. These people are lazy, even if they work the same hours we do and as hard as we do. They aren’t as successful as us, therefore they aren’t busy like we are. They aren’t working as hard as we are. We all know this is definitely not the case.

We look at people who are truly busy and we don’t envy them, yet we still strive to be them because its expected that being busy is a sign of hard work and success. Even if we aren’t busy, we want people to think we are. Then we start telling people how busy we are all the time, even when we aren’t. I have had someone tell me how busy they were when they didn’t get up until noon and were going to go play video games with friends. They were “too busy” because they didn’t want to help me maintain our house. They weren’t busy, they thought the act of doing the dishes wasn’t worth their time and their time was more important than mine.

We are all (most of us at least) guilty of both of these crimes.

We say we are busy as an excuse and we say we are busy to devalue others’ work. This is all intentional and unintentional. I doubt I ever thought, “I’m going to tell this person I’m so busy so they feel bad about themselves.” But what I probably did think was “I’m busy, so I want them to know it is a privilege for me to even be here.” Now this sentiment is even more nefarious because it does what the first statement does and it is meant to make the other person think I am more important than them because I’m not just there, I’m there in spite of something else. It also means that I don’t care if they are there in spite of their schedule too. It means that I think that whatever busyness they may have isn’t at “my level.” I hate it when this happens to me, so why did I do this to someone else? Why was being busy so important to me?

I used to treat being busy as a form of escape. If I was busy, I wasn’t thinking about the things that gave me anxiety. I admitted this to my grief counselor after she asked if school, work, and extracurriculars were going to be too much for me. She said, “well then it’s a good thing you are taking on so much, just remember that you don’t have to.” I was making myself busy to run away from my real problems.

When I realized there was no real reason for me to be busy and that I needed to address what was causing my anxiety (grief and trauma) and started talking to my counselor about that. I realized I didn’t want to be busy and I didn’t need to be. I wanted to be productive, and I had busyness and productivity confused and it was incredibly damaging to my mental health. Especially since I thought being busy was helping me. When there was no reason or desire for busyness, I felt a little lost.

I wanted to drop out of school because it made me busy. I thought about staying in school but quitting both of my jobs because I didn’t want to be busy anymore. Suddenly everything I was doing that was making me busy felt meaningless. It took a major attitude adjustment to get out of this.

When I got out of this slump, which I will save for another post. I realized that I could just say “no” to things. I didn’t need to be a straight-A college student. I didn’t need to do extracurriculars that weren’t rewarding. I decided that I would only do things that were directly beneficial to me or a loved one, not taxing on my schedule, and made me feel good. School sucks, but I like to learn, so I started focusing on learning, not grades. I don’t like one of my jobs as much as the other, and lucky for me, it’s the one that I don’t really need and I could give up as soon as I want to.

I learned that being busy is not something we should idealize.

People who are truly busy either don’t think they are because they enjoy their work or they want to change it. Everyone else who says they’re busy and aren’t doing anything about it, are using the phrase “I’m busy” as a status statement.

The only time it is appropriate to tell someone you’re busy is when you are asking for help, and then you should make that very clear. When someone else tells you they are busy, ask them if they need help. Or say nothing and give them a chance to really think about how they would follow up to their own declaration of busyness.

I want you to think about how often you tell people you are “busy.” Think about why you say it, and whether you are genuinely busy by your standards. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do to change it, either through taking on a new perspective towards your work or taking on fewer responsibilities. Think about how you feel when someone randomly tells you they are busy, or when they tell you they are busy and you know they mean something else.

I did, and I realized being busy isn’t worth it and telling people I’m busy is bullshit. Everyone is busy and I don’t want to be.

That’s why I never want to hear or say “I’m busy” again.

Let me know how it makes you feel when someone says “I’m busy” to you, or what are you going to do to rethink how often you say “busy?”

 

 

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