Busyness Is a Thief


“How have you been?”

“Oh, you know … busy.”

Too many of our conversations begin (and effectively end) this way. We don’t have to explain or connect further because we’re “busy” — it’s the magic word that obscures our day-to-day lives while letting everyone know that we have it together.

Each of us promotes this mindset every time we don the cloak of “busyness” to avoid talking about our lives; brag about how little sleep we get or how few vacation days we take; or flake on a social engagement because we’ve over-scheduled ourselves.

Where did this society-wide catchphrase come from?

The Cult of “Workism”

One factor is our obsession with being overworked, something that is not only condoned but also glorified and rewarded by society.

A recent article for The Atlantic asked if “workism” was becoming a new religion of sorts as Americans become less religious and less focused on community and family and continue to work more hours than their counterparts in other countries.

Some people try to fix themselves and their workaholic schedules with magic phrases like “time management” or “work-life balance.” The belief is that if you just tweak your schedule, multi-task on a few things, get less sleep, add in some meditation or therapy or bikram yoga, then presto! you’ll find balance in life. As former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer infamously said in 2016, part of “success” is being strategic about when you use the bathroom.

“Nothing can alleviate the stress of overwork except working less,” therapist Zoë Krupka wrote in 2017. No matter how many times you reconfigure your schedule and no matter how many vitamins you take or time management tips you read, you can’t stop being “busy” and reclaim your life without working less.

Generation Identity Crisis

Another factor at play is the way we’ve been taught to feel about our jobs. While a lucky few have found a way to make money while doing something they find fulfilling, it’s not possible for an economy to run only on workers pursuing their “passion.” Yet Americans — particularly those of the millennial generation — are constantly guilted into feeling that if they don’t find the meaning of life in their day job, they’re wasting their lives.

“The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office,” Derek Thompson wrote in his “workism” treatise.

People who make a living doing something they happen to love aren’t the issue. It’s the collective social guilt heaped on people who don’t love their jobs but are content doing what it takes to pay the bills and who (gasp) aren’t willing to take on a “side hustle” because it would mean less time with family and less time doing things they enjoy for their own sake — not to supplement their paycheck.

“The upshot is that for today’s workists, anything short of finding one’s vocational soul mate means a wasted life,” Thompson described this mindset for the Atlantic. If you aren’t pursuing your “passion,” you need to join all the “busy” people who are.

Another source of discontent is social media. Facebook would have us believe that all of our friends are killing it at their dream jobs, going to incredible travel destinations, getting engaged to and marrying the love of their lives, adopting a dog, publishing a book, having a child and earning another degree — possibly all in the same week.

Everyone seems to be finding success at the office and in his or her personal life. We don’t always see the years of work that went into finding the job, getting the degree or writing the book; we just see that shiny Facebook post shoved to the top of our algorithm because it got a lot of likes. No wonder everyone is so “busy” all the time — life must not only be lived but also documented for Instagram.

Reclaiming Your Life

Every moment of my life seems to be spoken for; yet, when someone asks, “What did you do this week?” sometimes all I have to offer is “I was … busy.” I fear I’m wiling away the time with things that don’t really matter.

C.S. Lewis once wrote about the monotonous nothingness that steals away our time. “Nothing is very strong,” he wrote in 1942’s The Screwtape Letters, “strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering …”

I’ve been trying to reevaluate how I spend my time, to catch myself when Nothing overtakes me. With the caveat that some days, weeks and phases of life will be more hectic, I’d like to do my part to dispel the myth that a harried, hyper-scheduled, relentlessly “busy” existence is a healthy or happy one.

Do you know what being busy really means?

Do you know what being busy really means? It means missing out on the big things. It means not having time to schedule a doctor’s appointment until your health breaks down. It means losing touch with a good friend you’ve cancelled on one too many times, never finding a second to call a family member who’s going through a health crisis, missing out on crucial life moments with the people you care about.

Busyness deprives us of the little things, too. It means having no time to experience small moments of joy in everyday life — no time or energy to read a favorite book or learn something new for the fun of it or even really taste food because you’re rushing through a meal to get to the next thing.

You are more than a hectic schedule and a to-do list. What would being less “busy” look like in your life? Would you get enough sleep for once? Perhaps you would truly enjoy a meal, connect with someone you care about, go to an art museum, spend time daydreaming or tinkering with a just-for-fun project or writing/painting/using whatever creative medium you find most fulfilling.

Also known as — the things that make up a life.


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