I’m Busy. But Not Really.

Last semester I found myself in a conversation (well, more like an argument) about “being busy” and its taken-for-granted effects in life. My upbringing in a culture that was constantly “go go go.” Failure signaled a laziness. Add to that my anxiety, and we have created a situation in which no doubletakes were taken on “busyness.”

It seemed normal. So… accurately descriptive of my being. Being busy was good. I really believed I was busy.

I was enrolled in two courses last semester but the workload, in reality, wasn’t unbearable. Sure, doing two completely different topics as course projects was a challenge. Having to complete 10 interviews, transcribing, coding, and analyzing my data was a lot of work, but none of that actually made me “busy.” I’ve taken on similar workloads in the past, with similar deadline-strict projects. I was also working two part-time jobs, one of which had a fairly structured schedule, the other of which was extremely flexible.

But again, none of this equated to really “being busy.”

I doubt there is any one problem to this whole thing. The culture of equating productivity with busyness is surely problematic. But the anxiety, somehow enabled by this “culture of productivity,” makes it that much worse. The only way we can show that we’re worth something is through this act of being busy. If we’re busy, then we must be doing important shit, which means me must be some important shit. It’s all about perception.

Reality: It feels like shit. The anxiety has this strange effect of shrinking time. I’m left feeling as though I have no time to complete anything. “I’m busy” became an excuse to not participate in life because I was afraid I wouldn’t get things done.

I passed on bike rides. I passed on movies. Passed on going out generally. But I wasn’t really busy.

Yes, I had coursework and papers and my two jobs, but I was not “busy” in the sense that an emergency room nurse is busy on a double 12-hour shift.

“Busy” was an illusion. An illusion, it appears, for many of us.

“Busy” was a message that screamed, “leave me alone.” And I was sure to lose friends and companions if I kept that up, as my partner reminded me.

So why say it, or even gesture it?

Busyness serves as an existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

So writes Tim Krieder in The New York Times.

Current culture serves the economic system. It requires a lot of labor for it run, yet does it have to be so? Thinking about the differences between urban and rural people, I have to wonder if rural folks ever experience the hysteria of busyness. Is it just an urban person’s nightmare, moving with the flow of the hysteria of the city? Is it just that part of the stage of the urban dweller, to appear to be busy in the hopes to be perceived as someone important?

The Internet has no shortage of pieces written about “busyness” and being busy, and looking busy. But for all this talk, books, blog posts, and memes about it, is anything changing?

Busyness may be a necessity of the current economic condition, but Krieder has a point (emphasis mine): “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.”



  1. How do you differentiate between busyness and distraction? Or are they mutually inclusive? how does social media or having a social presence online fit into this?


    1. Distraction isn’t necessarily focused, from my experience. The differences may manifest differently for people, but in my case, I find that distractions manifest as cyclical, ruminating thoughts about random things.

      Social media use would most likely fit under distractions, if you find that you’re using it to not do what you want to be doing. It’s a tool of procrastination.

      Busyness is me doing my work, but using it as an excuse to not do anything else, such as social engagement with friends.


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