The Security Blanket of Busy

stop the glorification of busy

Yesterday I shared a picture on Facebook that garnered a number of responses, and it got me thinking about our addiction to busy.

It works something like this: You run into someone and the conversation goes this way:

Hi! I haven’t seen you in a long time! How have you been?”

“Oh, so busy! Life is just so busy right now”.

“Me as well! I don’t know where the time goes!”.

Happy with our self-congratulations we move on to respective areas of the supermarket.

How often has this happened to you in our western world of quick interactions and fly by conversations?

I posted last year on weather as the great western social facilitator and if weather is one social facilitator in the west, “I’ve been so busy” is another. It has become standard response to the question “How are you?”.

Imagine for a minute that instead of the socially mandated busy one upmanship you respond: “We’ve been great! Not too busy, just the right pace so that we are occupied but not overwhelmed.”

You would have broken a cultural code, for in our society we have created a busy badge of honor worn with pride. We are proud that we are busy. So busy that eating meals together for most families is rare except for Christmas and Thanksgiving. So busy that our counters are cluttered with mail that has not been sorted for 3 months and mold covering what used to be food in plastic containers in our refrigerators could be made into penicillin. The amazing thing is the self-satisfied pleasure with which we let people know this. Like it’s some kind of award or gives us higher status.

Busy has become like a security blanket. We wrap it tightly around us so that we can justify our existence. 

Busy is synonymous with important. If you’re not busy it must mean you aren’t useful. Or important. Or contributing anything worthwhile. Or many other things. Not being busy is a bad thing.

As if adults wearing this blanket of busy with pride is not enough, we’ve passed this cultural value on to our children, the future generation. As they hear us say with fake smiles and little laughs how “busy” we are, they hear the other person respond with affirmation – a “hear, hear” sort of compliment.

Does this busy blanket do anything good for us culturally? Is it a value we want to continue? Is it immigrants working late into the night after finishing their day jobs who claim they are “so busy”. I don’t think so. Those words don’t do them justice.

Many have put the blanket on themselves, a burden that can be blamed on nothing and no one.

Tim Kreider writing an Opinionator piece last year in the NY Times calls this The ‘Busy’ Trap. “It is,” he says “pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.” His essay is a much more in depth look at this phenomenon and I encourage you to take a look.

So here’s the challenge – Next time someone asks you how you are – don’t do it! Don’t fall for the trap! Use another adjective. Be creative. And once you do – come back to the blog and let us know what you said. How did you respond instead of saying “I’m so busy”?  We need all the help we can get to break this cycle!

What suggestions do you have that can replace the “I’m so busy” mantra? Would love to hear through the comments!

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18 thoughts on “The Security Blanket of Busy

  1. My African-American students at the seminary have a response to the question “How are you?” that I love. Invariably their answer is: “I am blessed.”

    It completely changes my follow up conversation EVERY TIME.


  2. Marilyn, my responds to inquiries are generally “I am happy; I am content; I am enjoying the moment; I am looking forward to the weekend”.
    Often I notice, folks who are not busy and live a laid back lifestyle consistently claim to be busy. On the other hand, folks who truly are busy do not talk about it. It seems this is the answer — folks who are not busy feel the need to make self appear busy since they may not value self or they might fear not to be valued. Then again, some folks might claim to be busy to assure no one asks them for any favors and/or assistance.
    Great post — with your permission I would like to forward this message. Petra


    1. I would love for you to share it Petra – I would be honored. You bring up some really interesting points. Maybe those truly busy feel they will be judged if they talk about it, those who aren’t feel they will be judged if they don’t say they’re busy, and still others need the excuse so they can satisfy self. It’s complicated, but society induced complication.


  3. This has been a pet peeve of mine for years, and is very much one of the things I enjoy about living in Mexico (here, at least on the coast, they don’t have this problem).

    “Busy” is a boast, it’s an excuse, it’s a way many people “judge” the “success” of someone else. It’s bogus. I have made it a rule not to answer the “how are you” question with “busy.” Thank you for writing this.


  4. I don’t think that it is always a boast. I think that sometimes it is an excuse for people who know they should spend more time with their friends and use busyness the reason that they don’t, or it is a legitimate complaint. Too many people are dying from busyness and they can see it in their exhaustion, marriage tension and stressed out kids. They don’t want to be so busy, but think it is absolutely necessary for their children to do sports and youth group and Boy Scouts and ballet while they volunteer for the PTA and make homemade organic meals and feel guilty because they haven’t had a date night in 2 months. This in engrained in our culture and it is going to take a lot of people shouting this from the rooftops for a long time before people will buy the idea that they don’t have to be busy in order to be important or a good parent.

    On the other hand, Jesus worked himself to the point of exhausion several times before retreating for prayer and I think there are seasons where a busy schedule is justified. It just can’t be a lifestyle.


    1. Yeah – I would say that Jesus’ ‘busyness’ looks a little different than ours. And perhaps it’s because ours is, at heart, self-centered and insecure. Why do kids need 4 activities each? So they can compete with other kids, so they won’t miss out on a thing. The problem is they miss out on sooo much creative, down time. It’s a longer conversation than this but I totally agree that it will take a lot more than a blog post to change this…ever. Perhaps the question is how can we affect change in our communities?


  5. I have been quite happy lately to tell people I’m doing well and not very busy. It usually throws people off-kilter since they are so used to the typical response you speak of. I wholeheartedly agree that we tend to miss out on life and forgetting the purpose of it all when we continue running a race every second of every hour. Hallelujah for the down time of exercise, relaxation, prayers, etc.


  6. Marilyn, I think I’m in a bad mood this morning. As far as I’m concerned, all those “busy” people, along with those who are habitually late fall into the same category: self-centered and egotistical.


  7. Even though moving back to Germany has been quite a rough ride, one of the things that I have enjoyed is that the “culture of busyness” isn’t nearly as pronounced as in the UK (and the US, it seems).


    1. Bayta, which part of Germany are you from? Just curious since I am from Stuttgart. I miss the afternoon breaks with tea/coffee and a homebaked cake. Bist Du in Deutschland aufgewachsen? Wenn ja, wo? Petra


      1. Hallo Petra, ich bin in Hamburg geboren und aufgewachsen, war dann viele Jahre in England und lebe jetzt seit 3 Jahren in Berlin.


    2. This is so good to know Bayta….and Germany, from what I know, is just as efficient, no? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on the ‘why’ of it. And how do you respond when asked how you are?


      1. I’m not sure I really know the “why” of it. Of course a lot of people are very busy but what your cousin describes as busyness being ‘revered, prized, valued’ does not seem to be the case in Germany. My American colleagues often comment on how much time students here take just to sit and talk. In the UK, I often felt that just being busy was important, almost regardless of what you were busy doing. Here, being too busy to take time for people is sometimes unavoidable but is not seen as a badge of honour. Long may it last!


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