Busy isn’t respectable anymore.

Why busyness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and a challenge to put it behind us.

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


Being busy used to make me feel important. It made me feel like the world needed me, like somehow I was more valuable or valid when busy. Perhaps that’s why I wore it like a badge and quickly resorted to it when people asked how life was. Yet in all reality, busyness was just another addiction I clung to so I could avoid things that made me uncomfortable.

Sadly, the things I often stayed busy to avoid happened to be some of the more worth while things in life.

I recently shared an article by one of my favorite columnists, Tim Kreider, in which he divulges on the vanity of always being busy. The general gist of his rant can be caught when he says,

“I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.”

Tim’s article is one of many pieces in a recent and widespread frustration with the perpetual busyness of life. As of late, there seems to be a general suspicion growing about the, once viable, value of always being busy. And because more questions are being asked, more answers are being found.

As it turns out, always being busy isn’t a virtue, nor is it something to respect anymore. Among many reasons for this, there are a few that stand out to me.

It can actually be a sign of an inability to manage our lives well. Though we all have seasons of crazy schedules, few people have a legitimate need to be busy ALL of the time. For the rest of us, we simply don’t know how to live within our means, prioritize correctly, or say no. “Being busy is not the same as being productive,” says Tim Ferriss, “…and is more often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions. Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

It can be indicative of a lack of confidence and self-worth. Often we stay busy to subconsciously feel important and valuable to the world around us. Sadly, this points to an ignorance of our inherent value, in that regardless of our performance in life, we are important, loved and valuable. This slippery slope typically makes us too uncomfortable with ourselves or the reality of our lives to slow down.


Busyness actually restricts professional performance and limits mental capacity. With plenty of recently published psychological and biological evidence of this, Kreider seems to capture it well in the previously cited Busy Trap when he says,

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

Busy often keeps us from the finer things in life. Though being busy can make us feel more alive than anything else for a time, the sensation is not sustainable long term. We will inevitably, whether tomorrow or on our deathbed, come to wish that we spent less time in the buzz of the rat race and more time actually living. Or as Seneca says in Letters from a Stoic, “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living, and there is nothing harder to learn.”

An Experiment & Challenge in Resisting Busy.

Paul E. Ralph is a fundraising, copywriting & marketing expert living outside of Toronto. He’s recently launched PathwaysFund, an online tool which assists non-profits to cultivate spontaneous generosity. He also happens to be a longtime friend.


I’ll never forget when I was young seeing Paul standing outside in the freezing cold after evacuating my house with nothing but his boxers, a toothbrush in his mouth, and a pet parakeet under his shirt. This was after another friend and I, in attempt to clean up around the house, emptied hot coals from the fireplace into the plastic trashcan and returned it to it’s respective place: in the garage between two Lexus’. Long story short, six firetrucks later, we were able to salvage the cars and laugh about the incident today.

Shortly after I posted the previously mentioned article, Paul reached  out to me about an experiment he and his wife did last year revolving around the issue of busyness. I thought it too good not to share.

Enter Paul.

My wife and I began noticing that everybody in our circle of influence, including ourselves, responded to virtually any question with “busy.” Normal questions? busy. Normal life? busy. It was evident that the new normal was a declaration of busy.  It became the new mantra for living in the 21st century.  ‘I am busy.  Hear me roar!’

So, we decided to conduct an experiment.

We decided to never use the phrase BUSY as an answer for an entire year and to see if there were any changes in attitude and/or behaviour. Ours. Theirs.

We noticed alright.  Instantly.

We were forced to describe our own situations with more clarity, and without our best friend ‘busy’ to blame, we engaged with people more authentically. As we did, we noticed the general depth of conversations increase as we and those we were sharing with, were invited to communicate differently about our actual states of being.

We stopped manipulating our friends. We weren’t actually aware that we were doing it before, however with that little four letter word excommunicated, we no longer predetermined the ubiquitous auto-response – “me too.”

We also quit guilting other people with all of our so called busy-ness. There’s nothing quite like the overachiever in the crowd diminishing everybody else efforts.  Our busyness somehow validated us in the minds of our peers. So we thought.  When we stopped using the word, we were free to be happy with our efforts for the day – and free to let others be comfortable with their own accomplishments.

‘The devil made me do it’ was a well-worn phrase when I was a kid.  Perhaps ‘busy’ is its new iteration.  An unintended consequence of our banishment of all things busy was that we stopped justifying our poor behaviors & choices.  As we practiced choosing better words to describe our circumstances, we noticed a steady decline in the blame game. It included saying things like “we choose to take on too much…our bad.”

And most importantly, when we quit using the word BUSY, we noticed that others did the same. It was refreshing, for all of the aforementioned reasons.

Busy, it would seem, is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The more we said it – the more we felt it.  The more we felt – the more we acted like it.  The more we acted like it – (well, you know the rest).  Guess what?  When we quit saying it, we reversed SOME (not all) of the craziness.

Exit Paul.

So, here’s the challenge. Regardless of our love or hate of busyness, let’s experiment with what it’s absence does for us.

There are several ways we could go about doing this. Elimination using the 20/80 rule, or a good dose of Parkinson’s law, or any one of a number of popular methods. However, I like Paul’s approach.

For one month, I’m going to stop using the word “busy.” I’m going to resist the comfort of it to try and dig deeper to explain how things really are. If I feel busy, my hope is to be aware enough to discover why and to learn how I can change it.

Join me. Or at the very least, remember that being busy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and often isn’t as necessary as we think.

Disclaimer: Being busy, in this context, is not synonymous with being hard working or productive or effective. (read more about this here) Also, this article is calling into question busyness for busyness sake. Busyness by necessity, at least for a season, is an entirely different conversation.

Also, I’ve recently been fascinated by the impact of our daily routines. Rhythms is a series of short weekly emails on how to design your daily rhythms, in cooperation with your biology, to increase energy, productivity & margin. If interested, learn more here.

  • Brian

    I think you may have missed JB13’s point, and you definitely overreached in your analysis of him or her as a person based on one comment (you focus almost your entire response not on the things JB13 said but on what you assume about him or her as a person). I read his or her comment as talking about how much pressure there is to fill every moment with productivity. Perhaps claiming to be “busy” is a self-defense strategy to protect some corner of our personal time. The reward for a job well done is more work, which can be a blessing to a point but becomes a burden if taken too far. Our society has repeatedly seen employers do this: cut staff, causing a corresponding increase in workload for everyone left, and then, after the new workload is normalized, cut staffing and increase workload again. In this economy, picking different overlords isn’t always practical and is sometimes impossible.

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  • Morgan

    I think this article is less about BEING busy (diligent, productive, fulfilled in well-chosen activity) and more about PRETENDING to be too occupied to engage with others (dismissing the possibility of connecting with them by throwing out the “busy” word when they ask how you’re doing). It’s our modern way of saying “don’t ask… I am very important and don’t have time to really talk to you right now.” I often hear myself saying it to my kids too (ouch!)… reminds me of the old song “Cats in the Cradle.”

  • Nauctavia

    You said “We were forced to describe our own situations with more clarity… [and] were invited to communicate differently about our actual states of being”. Other than ““we choose to take on too much…our bad.”, Would you be cool with offering some examples of how you described your situation or states of being to someone else (or yourself)? If so, it would bring me more clarity. I’m eager to hear your discoveries :o)

  • Jacquie T

    i have a dad who has never been in my life but loves to mention how he’s busy when we do see each other.. never goes into detail further than that but i guess that is his excuse to never come see me – because i’m not busy like he is. nice excuse dad, hope you are happy because you’ve missed 99% of my life.

  • Tabitha Farrar

    Thanks. We have been developing an anti-busyness company policy. The funny thing is, that even when management instruct us not to fall into the busy trap, we still do it my default. I am in the process of re-learning this one too.

  • http://www.carolynemas.com/ CarolyneMas

    I know people who say they are busy just to have control over a conversation, and to terminate it the moment the other person begins to speak. You can check if they are doing this by throwing the conversation back to them…and wait to see if suddenly they don’t have to rush out the door as quickly as they did when you were talking. It’s funny, and it seems to happen with people who have trouble making personal connections, or going any deeper in a friendship. They are social butterflies, and very superficial. They fear intimacy, and if they stood still long enough, they might realize that in fact they hate themselves…so it is far easier to shut you down instead, They never remember the things you tell them, as they were not entirely present during the conversation, well, because they were too busy. They never ask you about the details of your life, but give plenty of details about their own doings. They zone out, and make you feel as if they are holding an egg timer when you talk. In short, they have a way of making you feel quite insignificant amongst all their doings. I am dumping every one of them from this moment on.

  • Marianne Black

    Nailed it.

  • Stacey

    One time I called my dad to talk and he said to me. I can’t talk I’m too busy doing the lawn. I stopped and challenged him, so dad what do you think God would say when you get to heaven. Good job on the lawn John or glad you took time out to hear your daughter and provide a safe place for her to talk.

    Busy is a common work for Narcssist. It’s a way of controlling the world around them without giving out what’s really the truth.

    So go ahead be busy. I once had a person in my small group I coached and the person was talking about how busy they were and how many people were missing them at work. So I asked the person. Who is missing you at home? He answered sheepishly and started to cry. Those tears lasted five days. This person got it! I am constantly judged by my ex who cannot appreciate that I chose my daughter (our daughter) over money. Instead I chose a new career so I could be there for her. Her whole life changed. Her grades went up, her confidence increased and I knew what was really going on in her life. I knew each teacher and student by name. That meant something. I am told by so many people my daughter is amazing. Not like a lot of kids these days. And I know it’s because I chose her. Now he is a millionaire and I will probably work till the day I die to make ends meet. But really. She was worth it.

  • newredpill

    Don’t you feel very important when you’re busy? When a friend tells you, in one way or another, he’s too busy for you, s/he’s telling you his/her time is more important than yours. Maybe not always, but it seems to me there’s a feeling of superiority behind it, and something subtly condescending, especially when that friend/relation tells you what you should be doing with your life (i.e., so you can be more like them). Just a thought.