The Blog.

Busy is the OLD normal

14 Dec 2015 | Work Life Rhythm

How often do we answer the question “How’s it going?” with “Busy!”

Busyness has become the norm. But it has also become strangely aspirational. As much as we complain about being busy, we’re also strangely resistant to being not busy.

When was the last time you heard anyone admitting to not being busy? That they had plenty of time, things were nice and slow, and they had plenty of spare capacity? Why are we afraid of the alternative? What would it mean to be not busy? Does that mean I’m lazy? Not doing enough? Will someone come and give me more work to do?

For those who run our own businesses, ‘busy’ is often seen as a measure of success. Busy means you’re in demand, therefore you must be doing something right. If you’re not busy, what have you done wrong? Is your product substandard? Is your service poor? Have you neglected your marketing?

For those who work in ‘busy’ organisations, admitting to not being too busy might land you with more work to do. You’re on top of your work are you? Great – go help Sally with her backlog! Or worse, maybe someone will start questioning whether you’re surplus to requirements…

We might even feel resentment if someone isn’t busy – that somehow they aren’t pulling their weight. If the rest of us are suffering, surely they should be carrying their piece of the burden too?

We validate our worth with busy. There’s something about being busy that gets associated with being wanted, being needed, being in demand. Honestly, there’s a part of me that enjoys being busy. I feel useful.

We use busy to judge whether we decide to do something or not – it seems more acceptable (or at least easier) to say “no sorry I’m busy” than to say “thanks but no thanks”

We satisfy ourselves that we’re doing the best we can because we’re busy and couldn’t possibly do any more. Or we feel like a constant failure because we’re so busy trying to catch up.

Busy is seen as good work ethic. And those who aren’t busy are viewed with suspicion.

Busy is our means of achieving, but also our excuse for not achieving. Not dealing with that problem that we’ve been avoiding. Not making that appointment to get that lump checked out. Not taking a break, or booking that holiday you keep promising yourself. Not going for that run, or that swim or that walk. Not having that difficult conversation with your partner, or your boss, or your kids. Not cutting your losses on the project that’s not working out. Not letting go of that customer you’ve outgrown. Not being ruthless and saying no…

We know what we need to do, to manage our stress and stay healthy, but we don’t do it because we’re too busy.

As the American Psychological Association’s Stress In America 2010 report found “In general, Americans recognize that their stress levels remain high and exceed what they consider to be healthy. Adults seem to understand the importance of healthy behaviors like managing their stress levels, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise, but they report experiencing challenges practicing these healthy behaviors. They report being too busy as a primary barrier preventing them from better managing their stress…”

Dr. Susan Koven of Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in her 2013 Boston Globe column: “In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”

The above is an extract from my new book “How to be Really Productive: achieving clarity and getting results in a world where work never ends.

So what’s the alternative to busy?

Perhaps we should simply start by swapping the word busy for something more truth-telling. When you say “I’m busy”, what do you really mean? Are you fully committed, or over-committed? Are you excited or exhausted? Confused? Distracted? Undecided? Lost?

If life is full on, what exactly is it full of? Opportunity, excitement, adventure and wonderment? Or distraction, demands, emails, meetings, deadlines and drudgery?

What word would you use to replace ‘busy’?


  1. glendashawley

    Productive. I don’t think being too busy reduces our productivity or at least it does mine.

    • Grace Marshall

      Great word Glenda 🙂 Do you mean you ‘do think’ or ‘don’t think’?

      • glendashawley

        Well spotted Grace. I’ve edited my comment now.

Image if author Grace Marshall

About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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