The Hard Facts: Getting Busy

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.'” (The Busy Trap“; 6/30/2012)

This story was hard to miss. Not only was it the paper’s most emailed story for a couple of days, but it seemed to be plastered on everyone’s Facebook feeds. Overall, the piece is about our current culture of busy. It’s about how everyone is so supposedly swamped that they don’t have time for anything–fun, friends, relaxation–and how the author is trying to live the exact opposite life. One where, as he says, “on the best ordinary days of my life, I write in the morning, go for a long bike ride and run errands in the afternoon, and in the evening I see friends, read or watch a movie. This, it seems to me, is a sane and pleasant pace for a day. And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?”

It’s a lovely, if rare, attitude. Most people cannot blow off work for cocktails, of course. But even if they could, most probably wouldn’t. Because, yup, they’d be too busy. And, as author Tim Kreider so aptly points out, people love to talk about how busy they are–it makes them feel, or at least appear, important and purposeful.

The problem with all this busyness, though, is that it’s keeping us from forming and nurturing friendships. How can a person see her BFFs as much as she’d like if she’s buried under a mountain of work/errands/family responsibilities? I know that’s what has made my search such a long one. It’s not like in middle school, when it seemed like the majority of our to-dos revolved around hanging with friends.

I love this example from the article: “I recently wrote a friend to ask if he wanted to do something this week, and he answered that he didn’t have a lot of time but if something was going on to let him know and maybe he could ditch work for a few hours. I wanted to clarify that my question had not been a preliminary heads-up to some future invitation; this was the invitation. But his busyness was like some vast churning noise through which he was shouting out at me, and I gave up trying to shout back over it.”

This happens all the time! I’ll say to someone, “we should get together.” She’ll respond with “totally.” And then we’ll stare at each other for a second, me not understanding if her response was an agreement to take out our calendars and plan something or a polite brush off. Then she’ll say “I’m going to be out of town but then we should totally make it happen.” And then I’m left thinking, so am I supposed to call you? Or will you email me? Or should we both just text each other?

Busyness, it seems to me, is often just an excuse for non-committalness.

What do you think? Do people wear their “busyness” as a badge of honor? Is it keeping friends from truly connecting? Or do we just live in a world where people truly are busier than ever before?


Filed under The Search

31 responses to “The Hard Facts: Getting Busy

  1. Yes, “busyness” is some kind of badge of honour and really gets on my nerves! It’s just an excuse – we can all make time for things we actually want to do.

  2. I agree. People wear busyness like a badge of honour. Oh the horror if we weren’t busy. People would think we were dull. Or had no friends. I like being busy at work. I’m much more productive when I’m busy. However, I’m happy to ditch when I get the chance. In fact, just this week I ditched work to go to Madam Tussards with my brother who was in town for a conference. It was great and I didn’t feel guilty in the least.

  3. I agree 100 percent. Busy is just the perpetual state of not being able to commit to something. Though, I must say that when someone commits–and then backs out last minute, I am even more perturbed.

    But I do agree, we don’t live the lives we want because we believe that we are busy–with whatever we are doing. And that’s a sad way to be living “busy” all the time. I’d rather be fulfilled all the time.

  4. I also agree that busyness is a badge, but ‘I’m busy” or I don’t have time” are all too commonly used as a synonym for “it’s not a priority right now”. There best “busy” people are those who also give some priority to balance in their lives.

  5. Wow. I can totally see myself on both sides of this dilemma. I unfortunately am one of those who is always busy. Always. As a guy, I have to always be doing something to feel as if im doing something worth while. In the past few years I have been confronted with this problem, the fact that I am “Too busy” for friends. And then I am reminded of a scripture “he who has friends, must show himself to be friendly” Prov 18:24. But truth be told, at the end of the day, the most worthwhile thing to work on is friendship. On the other hand, I have also tried to work on friendship only to find out the other person was “too busy”. Anywho, thanks for posting this! it reminds me of the fact that I have to really make an effort (conscious very deliberate effort) to build up and develop my friendships.

  6. Pat

    Don’t you think much of the busyness is tied to technology? We are so available that work/chores/errands just come faster and faster and all of us, being the well-socialized, responsible workers that we are, feel a compulsion to be “done”. I think if people were more realistic about their limits and priorities, they would be more in “control” , therefore happier.

  7. Cindy

    I agree with Pat about technology. When we allow ourselves to be so “connected,” we actually have less time to be truly connected, as in face-to-face, voice-to-voice connection with others. It takes discipline to ignore the buzzing device (or not have one or not bring it).

  8. Priorities. It’s all about people’s priorities. When someone asks me “How do you have time for this?” I simply reply, “I make the time.”

    Look, we all have time – it’s just a matter of what we choose to do with it. And yes, a lot of people feel more important when they say they are “slammed with work” or “crazy busy.” Again, they are showing you their priorities.

    Great topic. 🙂


    • Anonymous

      I couldn’t agree more! My husband and I were just having this discussion last night. You can’t do 1000 things in a day, but you CAN make time for what is most important to you. So when a friend says, “Sorry I’m just so busy” it really does mean, “Sorry, spending time with you is not a priority right now.”

    • Cassie


      I could not agree with you more and there is a perfect example of it right in this post. When ‘hanging out’ was the invitation, the friend said no, but might be swayed later in the week if there was something he was interested in doing, which usually translates into ‘I don’ t want to hang out with you unless it’s for something really cool.’

      I completely agree about priorities. I often scratch my head when friends aren’t able to do one thing, but are able to do something else. Ideally, the friend would counter with something they’d prefer to do, but that doesn’t always happen. It’s really just a matter of what they prefer or value over something else.
      Do you live in NYC by chance?

  9. I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that busyness is non-committalness. I tend to be a planner, organizer, and committer. Most of my “friends” are not. I recently tried to invite a few of them to lunch. I kept getting brushed off with, “Maybe next week,” or “we’ll firm up plans when we see each other at church.” We never went to lunch, and now I am starting to wonder, are these people really my friends?

  10. Great post. I do think “crazy busy” is a way to keep the world out, at least for a while. I think more and more people are also acting less spontaneously, and have gotten used to that swaddled feeling that comes with over-scheduling their lives. Like tight blankets, over-scheduling reduces uncertainty, soothes the baby who has yet to gain control of its limbs. Dayminders are like wet nurses.

    I’m a writer and a therapist, so a little unusual…but I sort of decided to take a good portion of the spontaneous that comes my way. It’s amazing all that enterss your life when you decide to open he door. The spontaneous connections I’ve made seem to me so much more fulfilling than so many of the overly-planned and scheduled friendships I’ve had in the past.

  11. My high school English teacher once told me “you will always find time to do the things that are important to you,” and I’ve found that to be true all my life. It seems to me that when people say “I don’t have time to do that,” what they really mean is “I don’t want to do that,” but being “busy” gives them a socially acceptable out. When something matters, you make it happen. So yes, I think for most people, their fetish with being busy is just a smokescreen that keeps unwanted activities and people at bay without their ever having to even acknowledge that they’re making a choice. It’s so much easier to blame the almighty overcrowded schedule and say there’s nothing you can do about it, right?

  12. I completely agree that busyness is worn like a badge of honour and used as an excuse for being noncommittal. We make time for the things that are important to us.

  13. Oh Rachel, it’s one of the phrases I most hate hearing. Because I firmly believe that you make time for things that are important to you.

    I am genuinely one of the busiest people I know (full-time job, business after hours, twins, wife, etc) and still I make the time for my friends because they’re important to me. There are lots of other things I don’t do though, like watch a lot of TV.

  14. Great post.I wrote a post on this article too because I think it is fascinating. if you are inerested, you can find it here: I thought the idea that people seem to like to seem busy was an interesting one worth considering. It seems that people feel important if they feel busy. The Harvard Business Review also did a pretty good story on this and on the importance of getting rid of the business that doesn’t matter and focusing on the things that count, even in the workplace. Thanks for highlighting this article. It is some good food for thought.

  15. Shay

    I find that my fellow moms overschedule their children to the point that not only can’t the moms prioritize the things they want to do with their own lives and friends, their children can’t make room for playdates or downtime, either. Being the lazy (relaxed, not-busy) mom means that my invitations are always answered with a laundry list of the puzzle pieces of activities they’re trying to fit together in their daily lives and weekends, and with a sense of heroic martyrdom: “look what I’m giving up for my kids to have it all”. I often wonder if it’s worth it. For my family, I’ve decided it isn’t.

  16. I used to be one of those people who are too busy to spend time with people; now I realized my friends and loved ones are more valuable than my work. While I still love being busy, I always make time for them.

  17. I’ve heard, “I’m just too busy (to come see you or go out with you or call you)” so many times just to find out that that person was busy watching a movie or relaxing at home. I am convinced that it is just an excuse. I understand that my friend needs to clean her counters, but can’t she put me on speakerphone and still talk to me? I don’t think people value friendships anymore, and I’m afraid they’ll be sorry for it one day. Their clean counters aren’t going to take care of them when they’re sick, or bring over ice cream and watch a chick-flick with them after a string of bad dates.

  18. I agree with this completely! I was just telling my girls that I realize I’m swimming upstream here, but I am weary of the uber busy ladies around me constantly “updating” and basically trying to out busy each other. It is just another form of compitition and I refuse to play.

    Thank you for being brave and addressing this problem head on. I am your newest follower!

  19. Rachel – This one was preaching to me! I find myself daily saying how busy I am …yet being my own boss, I can change that! It’s funny I am actively trying to live life complaint free, yet never realized how my busyness has turned into complaining.

    Thank you for calling me out!

  20. I think people are extremely busy, but I also think that most of us give a disproportionate amount of time to things that bring us no joy, and we don’t really realize it. Really assessing what matters to you and then putting as much of your time as possible into those endeavors tends to yield more happiness. That’s part of the reason why my husband and I are having a year of “rootedness” in our new city, and are actively inviting people to hang out with us, and rarely turning down invitations when we are lucky enough to receive them. It is really tough (right this moment I’m groaning a bit about all the effort it is going to take to get our family of 4 ready for church this morning), but it is worth it (sort of like going to the gym, I guess!).

  21. cfandthecity

    I think being busy can be an excuse for some. Right now for me, doing a part time internship and not much else, I crave to be busy. Anytime someone asks me to do something I jump at the opportunity. So it’s interesting that busyness is something that maybe people aspire to, because it makes them feel successful. At least for me, I feel unsuccessful being not so busy.
    I like the perspective from the guy in this post. It makes me want to enjoy the free time I’ve got for now and go for bike rides, do relaxing things etc.

  22. Saying “I don’t have time for x” really means “x is not a priority to me.”

    As a gal with a lot of her plate, I can’t help but get offended when people who don’t have as much going on are “too busy” for me.

    But they have time for Facebook and the TV. Not a fulfilling life style if you ask me.

  23. Rose

    I’m late into the conversation but just wanted to say I love love this post. Its such an easy trap to fall into. Busy is really relative and we do choose how we spend our time. I really need to work on this some weeks.

    I do struggle finding a balance though. I have had weeks when suddenly all of my friends are free and want to hang out every single day. I have learned that I burn out and get stressed if I go out every single work night. I need a certain percentage of down time to relax, exercise, catch up around the house and get to sleep at a reasonable time. So I’ve started planning a “me” day in my busy weeks to give me some much needed balance. However, when friends call to hang out that day, they don’t take it well when I say I’m relaxing at home. So I tend to make myself sound “busier” as to not offend anyone. In a society that validates busy people, it seems terrible to covet unscheduled downtime.

  24. tunie

    I love this post too – your site is really great, I’ve just discovered it and am sprinkling these posts with comments haha.

    I’ve made major life changes so that I am specifically Not Busy on purpose. I had to! That lifestyle was just so vapid and wasteful to me, even though I could and SHOULD be busier – I decided, after being sick of hearing that “boast disguised as a complaint” one too many times, that I wanted out. So now I allow myself all the time I need for whatever I am working on and I make everyone concerned accommodate that, with no guilt whatsoever. That’s The Key. Of course I respect their deadlines implicitly, but I make sure it never impedes on my time flow. I also usually prioritize human connections over my “work’, even when it sets me back, because I am 45, single and work from home and human connections are rare and valuable to me. It’s changed my life – I am so much happier.

  25. I’m working on this. I think being busy makes people feel like they aren’t lonely, they just don’t have a lot of time for other people. I “lost” a lot of friends when I was pregnant with my daughter and haven’t made a lot of friends since then. I’m 25 with a two year old, in grad school and own my own photography studio, and I am really busy but that’s because I love all those things. But I also go out of my way to change my schedule around to accommodate my friends and my family. I’m trying to be that girl who busts out the moleskine on the street corner to make plans.

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