Why “Busy” is the New 4 Letter Word

Reading Time: 12 minutes

Busy. Everyone’s busy. I’m busy. You’re busy. We’re all just so busy. But what does that even mean? We feel like we’re “pressed for time,” that there’s “not enough time in the day,” and that we are “running out of time.” For far too long, using the word busy has been worn as a badge of pride. As if to say, I’m busy; therefore, I’m important and valuable. And if I’m not busy, I don’t matter.

But the time available to us hasn’t changed. We still get 24 hours a day (obvious, I know). In fact, many modern conveniences (e.g., washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc.) have actually lessened the time needed to tackle mundane tasks. So what’s actually going on? Are we really busier than ever, or is it simply that we feel busy?

Alright, so let’s cut to the chase. What’s the harm in using the word busy? My hope is by the end of this post, you’ll think long and hard about how (and if) you’ll continue using the word busy in the future. Below are the reasons I feel busy is the new (dirty) 4 letter word that we should (all but) eliminate from our vocabularies.


It is a choice.

Notice how it’s rarely the hourly wage-earner who’s just completed their third shift in a row or the commuter who consistently spends three hours a day to get to and from work who tells you how busy they are. These people are more than busy; they’re tired, exhausted, sleep-deprived, and their feet hurt. It’s more often than not the people “whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve ”encouraged” their kids to participate in” who can’t wait to tell us just how busy (and important, don’t forget that) their lives are.1

The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it. – Tim Kreider

What I find laughable — well that’s a little insensitive, how about sad (better?) — is that so many people are proud of how busy they are. As if it’s some sort of validation or medal to wear around their neck (not that there’s anything wrong with medals, but this is hardly one you should be proud to wear). I am as guilty as the next person and self-identify in a big way with casually tossing the word busy around. This habit is deeply rooted and can be extremely difficult to break until you realize why you should change.

So much of our distorted obsession with being busy stems from the environment in which we surround ourselves. We feel anxious or as if our days lack a sense of fulfillment if we’re not consistently filling our time by “doing something.” As Tim Kreider so eloquently puts it, “it’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling.”2 If it’s something we collectively choose to force on one another, then the obvious question is, why?

For some people, the obsession with busyness may stem from their inability to set realistic expectations. Perhaps your company is understaffed and overworked, and you feel you have no other choice but to roll up your preverbal sleeves and bill extra hours at night or on the weekends. For others, it might come from poor time management skills. You find yourself bouncing from one task to the other with little time to focus on what really needs to get done. I’m going to ignore the urge to dive headfirst into a detailed discussion on “time management.” Still, it’s stating the obvious that if you are unable to manage your time effectively, you’re likely far busier than you need should be.

Another likely cause of manic busyness stems from the common practice of overestimating our competence level. We think we’re capable of doing more, being better, when in fact (for most of us), we’re mistaken and somewhat delusional. People’s tendency to overrate their abilities fascinates Cornell University social psychologist David Dunning, Ph.D. “People overestimate themselves,” he says, “but more than that, they really seem to believe it.” Dunning finds that the least competent seem to overinflate their abilities the most, but that the reason for the overinflation seems to be ignorance, not arrogance. Knowing thyself isn’t that easy after all. 3

For many of us, my guess is there’s a more common scenario at play: You like being busy.

The bottom line is, being busy is allowing others to control your time. Being purposeful is being in the driver’s seat. The harsh reality is being busy is a choice. I mean, unless your name is Busy Philipps. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.


Busy is not a feeling.

If I were a betting man (and I’m actually not, the wife frowns upon it, and I value my hard-earned money too much), I would wager that more often than not, the most likely response to “how are you” is “gosh, I’m soooooo busy.” (Insert classic yet overused Robert Downey Jr eye-roll gif.)

We’re “busy,” “slammed,” and, simply doing our best to “keep our head above water.” I think you’ll agree that this is an all-too-common exchange, a one-upping, if you will, of how we define and communicate with each other about our lives. When you stop and think about it, what sort of response to “how are you” is “busy” to begin with? Busy is not a feeling.

What are the emotions you associate with the word busy? While technically, it’s not a feeling, my guess is you have certain feelings associated with it. So much of how we feel is directly related to the words and inner dialogue we tell ourselves. How we frame or contextualize an idea, thought, or feeling will often impact the way we experience the world around us.

There’s a fairly well-known practice of substituting the word “have” to for “get” to. After a quick Google search, I couldn’t find this concept’s originator, but that’s not really important. There’s remarkable potential for change in how it makes us feel about the associated task. Stop and think about all the times you use the phrase “have to.” I “have to” take Jimmy to school today. I “have to” get to the gym this morning. I “have to” see my family this weekend. Imagine how differently you might feel reframing those phrases above: I “get to” take Jimmy to school today. I “get to” go to the gym this morning. I “get to” see my family this weekend. Feels different, doesn’t it? We act as if we don’t have a choice (see the previous section for an explanation as to why that’s a big pile), and that’s ultimately what we’re telling ourselves.

In reality, we do have a choice. We choose our attitude and our actions. We choose how we view our life and work. We have the opportunity to realize that every day is a gift, a new chance to be better than yesterday. It’s not about what we have to do. It’s about what we get to do.

I encourage you to give this little experiment a try. Anytime you would have previously used the word “have to,” substitute it with “get to.” It allows you to shift your focus to feeling grateful instead of stressed. Tell your spouse, significant other, or anyone with whom you’re not embarrassed to talk about your “self-improvement” project and ask them to keep you in check. You’ll likely catch yourself when you use “have to,” but a little accountability always helps.

When you think about all the “things” keeping you busy throughout the day, focus on your attitude around each of these responsibilities. How can you reframe your mindset to ensure you are thinking positively rather than negatively?


It is a cover-up.

Obviously (sarcasm intended), our lives cannot be trivial or meaningless if we are constantly busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. It makes you wonder if all this “busyness” isn’t simply an attempt to cover up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t have any real value. Sorry to burst your proverbial bubble.

Most of us have experienced, more often than we’d like to admit, getting to the end of a day, overcommitted, running here and there, only to look back and feel an overwhelming sense that the day wasn’t all that productive. Being busy and productive are oftentimes confused with one another. I’m going to avoid falling down the rabbit-hole of differentiating the two, but suffice to say that being productive indicates something that yields results, benefits, or profits. Being busy is more directly tied to the amount of time spent, whereas being productive has more to do with our use of time.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the 80/20 rule or the Pareto Principle, which is simple in theory yet profound in the application. The principle is named for Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who, in 1906, found that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. What was most significant about Pareto’s finding was the consistent relevance of the 80/20 principle. Even in unrelated applications, more times than not, the principle rings true. Spend a few minutes thinking about how 20% of your time is likely responsible for 80% of what you accomplish. 4

Another way to look at busy as a cover-up is this – thanks to Seinfeld’s George Costanza who tells Jerry and Elaine his “secret” to looking busy at work, which is simply to “look annoyed.”

JERRY: I thought that new promotion was supposed to be more work?
GEORGE: When the season starts. Right now, I sit around pretending I’m busy.
JERRY: How do you pull that off?
GEORGE: I always look annoyed. Yeah. When you look annoyed all the time, people think that you’re busy. Think about it. [He pretends to be annoyed by something]
ELAINE: Yeah, you do!
JERRY: He looks busy!
ELAINE: He looks very busy.
GEORGE: I know what I’m doing. In fact, Mr. Wilhelm gave me one of those little stress dolls. [He stands up] All right. Back to work.

It seems silly, but let’s admit that it’s somewhat relatable. While he’s using an attitude of annoyance to give the illusion of busyness, how often do you use busyness as a cover-up for some other underlying attitude or agenda?

Take time to examine the “why” behind your busyness. Are you using work or successes to determine your own self-worth? Is your need to cram as much into your day as possible in an attempt to avoid problems in your personal life? Being genuinely busy isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, work allows us to be productive, pay our bills – important things like that. When we use busyness as a deflection for other issues or as a tool to measure our own self-worth, it becomes a problem. Being constantly busy is dangerous: it can keep us from facing the reality of our own lives. And that is a terrifying prospect.


It keeps you from being present.

Life is made up of hundreds of thousands of moments. Some that move us, others that change us, and some that provoke us to action. Being busy takes us away from those moments. 5

Who would you be if you weren’t busy accomplishing something? Would you be ok with doing nothing for hours on end? Have you ever tried “unplugging” for extended periods of time? How does it make you feel when you force yourself to disconnect from your phone or device for even 20 minutes? Be honest with yourself.

You’re standing in the checkout line at the grocery store, and in desperate need to fill that 30-60 second void, you feel the itch to reach into your pocket or purse and grab your cell phone. You click on one of several social media apps and mindlessly scroll until the clerk greets you and begins scanning your items. We’ve all done it. Full disclosure, I did it myself – today. At first thought, it seems harmless. What else is there to do while you’re standing in line? The problem isn’t so much what you’re missing in this exact moment, but rather the habit you continue to perpetuate and the potentially detrimental impact it has on your ability to be present in the moment.

I’m not going to take this opportunity to deep dive into social media’s negative effects; I’ll save that for another post. Suffice to say, these tools severely fragment our time and enable us to willingly waste so much of our day. Billions (yes, with a “B”) are spent creating addictive tools designed to pull your attention, making it nearly impossible to maintain focus on something important. “New research suggests that the many interruptions due to high-frequency use and the many daily incoming messages fragmenting everyday life could reduce productivity at work and lower a person’s well-being.” 6

As Cal Newport so eloquently sums it up in his book, Deep Work, “to simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life.” Once you’re wired for busyness, you crave it.


It disconnects you from people.

“No one is too busy to tell you how busy they are.” – Unknown

So much of our obsession with using the word busy stems from our constant need to out-do each other, especially you Type A folks – you know who are. (Yes, I’m guilty by association.) To say that “I’m busier than you are” is basically saying that I’m more important or that my time is more valuable. Maybe that’s your intent and how you feel. But for most of us, I’m going to venture to guess that’s not the intention behind your use of this worn-out phrase. 

Have you ever caught yourself deceptively using the “I’m busy” phrase as an excuse to get yourself out of something you’d rather not do? Whether it’s an invite to a coworker’s party, that early Saturday morning community event, or (insert something else you’d rather not do). It’s not that we’re too busy; it’s that we don’t want to, and using this heinous word as an excuse is the easiest laziest way out. 

“When consumers turn down a request for shared consumption, they typically provide an excuse in an effort to deny or reduce personal responsibility by suggesting that their declination was unintended, accidental, or the result of extenuating circumstances.” 7

The possible negative side-effects of using busy as an excuse is that, in most cases, people’s perception of your excuse is something you have control over – your time. Because we feel others should have more control over their time, we think they should be able to make time to do the things they really want to do. Therefore, we’re more likely to distrust the excuse that they don’t have time for us, and this ultimately impacts the quality of our relationship.8

What happened to just telling people how you feel? When did we all become such delicate little flowers that we’d rather lie than tell people what we really think? It may seem relatively harmless, especially when done to those we’re not “close to.” Still, chances are, if this is your trigger response and habit, you’re doing it to family, friends, and those with whom you’d be mortified if the act was reciprocated to you.


It is an addiction.

First, I take the term addiction seriously and in no is my intention to lessen the severity of those who suffer from truly life-altering addictions. Addiction can negatively impact marriages, families, close relationships and sadly it often ends lives altogether. This is not meant to downplay the seriousness of the word.

Addiction is defined as being physically or mentally dependent on something, and there are several qualities of busyness that make it addictive.

“When you’re dashing through the day at 100mph, you don’t have time to notice anxiety, back pain, or the existential angst of whether what you do all day is really rather pointless.” 9

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes, “one of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

As a society, we shame people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol, and yet somehow, we’ve normalized, even praised the addiction to busyness (remember that “medal reference?”). For some reason, we exempt addiction from our beliefs about change. The very word “addict” conveys an identity that suggests no other possibilities. It makes the (inaccurate) assumption that you can’t, or won’t, change. The truth is research states otherwise. In fact, more people quit addictions than maintain them. 10

So how do you know if you have an addiction to being busy? Ask yourself this simple question: how do you feel when you have absolutely nothing to do? Do you suddenly feel anxious or stressed? Are you concerned that you’re “wasting time” or that your day will be unproductive or meaningless? If you find yourself constantly thinking that you can’t dare slow down because you’ll miss something, fall behind or feel like a failure, you, my friend, may have a problem.

As with any addiction, the first step is to admit it. Own it. Be honest with yourself. Great, you’ve checked that box. Now what?

While I briefly touched on the idea of mindfulness, I would be remiss not to mention the practice of meditation as it relates to a potential way out of the addiction to busy.

As someone who actively practices meditation, Transcendental Meditation, to be exact, I’ve had periods of time over the years where I’ve let the daily practice slip, but I’m always amazed at how quickly I feel the benefits as soon as I come back to it. I think it was Tim Ferriss who said (and this is not verbatim), “chances are, if you think you’re too busy for meditation, you’re likely the most in need of it.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s the times when I feel the most disconnected, overly stimulated, and mentally fatigued that the benefits of meditation are most apparent. In its purest form, meditation is the antithesis of busyness; it’s the antidote, if you will.


It is robbing you of fulfillment and happiness.

When we “sell our souls” (too dramatic?) to the cult of busyness, we are giving up one of our most valuable tools to ensuring a happy and fulfilled life, stillness. To produce more meaningful work, build deeper relationships, and live up to the potential that we each have, we should take a step back from the always-on, hustle and bustle, break-neck pace of today’s world. Instead of taking a step back, we lean in.

How can we hope to experience stillness or mindfulness when we constantly shift our focus, chasing the next shiny object, running to the next “important” obligation? To achieve mindfulness, we must shift our thoughts away from our incessant preoccupations toward an appreciation of the moment, therefore allowing ourselves to see the larger perspective on life.

So much of the behavior that fills our days is mindless. If we can’t learn to wean our minds from their dependence on distraction, we will never learn the art of being present and mindful.

*  *  *  *  *  * *

Let’s put an end to the glorification of our culture’s obsession with busyness. Life is too short to be busy.

The trouble with being in the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.

Lily Tomlin


1 | Anxiety: the Busy Trap by Tim Kreider. (NY Times, July 1, 2012.) Tim Kreider is most widely known for his book, We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons. It’s a fantastic read and I highly recommend it.
2 | Id.
3 | Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 77, No. 6) December 1999
| Pareto Principle: How To Use It To Dramatically Grow Your Business by Dave Livinsky (Forbes, Jan. 20, 2014)
5 | 21 Reasons Why You Should not be Proud of Being Busy (Life Hack 2015)
6 | Smartphone Addiction, Daily Interruptions and Self-Reported Productivity by Eilish Duke, Christian Montag (Pubmed / NCBI July 2017)
| Communicating Resource Scarcity (Harvard Business School, Working Paper 19-066)
8 | Why “I Don’t Have Time” Is a Bad Way to Decline an Invitation (Harvard Business Review, March 6, 2019)
9 | How to Overcome Busyness Addiction by Andy Hix (Dec. 6, 2017)
10 | The Surprising Truth About Addiction by Stanton Peele Ph.D (Psychology Today, May 1, 2004)