Why are we busy?

I have long been intrigued by the fact that I (like almost everyone else I know) habitually answer the question, ‘How are you doing?’ with almost robotic predictability: ‘Oh, you know, swamped — so busy these days!’ What do I hope that you, the listener, know about me when I describe myself in this way?

In Conspicuous consumption of time: When busyness and lack of leisure time become a status symbol, the authors discuss our compulsion to appear busy as a byproduct of market forces. ‘The positive status effect of displaying one’s busyness and lack of leisure time is driven by the perception that a busy person possesses desired human capital characteristics (competence, ambition) and is scarce and in demand…’ In short: we need to appear busy because we all know that valuable people are busy people. When we tell others that we are working all the time we are ‘implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.’

Thorstein Veblen proposed in 1899 that wealthy elites flaunt their leisure time as a class and status symbol. Leisure, he surmised was less about relaxing and more about demonstrating the ability to afford relaxation. What Veblen did not imagine is that a hundred years later, the most affluent people would also be the busiest people. What Veblen got right, however, was that the wealthy class sets the bar for etiquette and behaviour. Busyness morphs into status signalling for the rest of us in the employed class. When we describe ourselves as busy, we mark ourselves as members in good standing with the socially mobile, playing by the established rules for the tier. Thus, today, to not identify yourself as busy — which must mean you are lazy — amounts to a kind of class suicide. Busyness has thus become our favourite humblebrag. Jonathan Gershuny puts it bluntly: ‘Work, not leisure, is now the signifier of dominant social status…activity patterns that once signified low social status, now signify high status.’ (See Busyness as the badge of honor for the new superordinate working class.)

There are also more intimately personal theories about busyness. In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown argues that busyness and ‘exhaustion as a status symbol’ is rooted in feelings of insecurity, inadequacy, and shame. We succumb to the lure of chronic busyness convinced that who we are (or who we appear to be) when we are not busy is insufficient. Busyness begets busyness because this void of self-worth — the valuelessness of whoever we believe we are when we are not busily accomplishing stuff — is an unfillable vacuum.

In A Right to Be Lazy?: Busyness in Retrospective, Gary Cross locates busyness in economic and material affluence. He sees busyness as ‘the opportunity to intensify sense experience—a longing that may well be built into us all but has become possible because of modern technology and marketing. It is the promise of more life per life.’ The sheer number of activities we have invented to keep ourselves preoccupied and ‘sensing’ is a drug we can’t refuse. (See: our technological fixation on avoiding boredom at all costs.)

Further to the above point, the authors of Idleness Aversion and the Need for Justifiable Busyness suggest ‘many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.’ In other words: busyness is our collective crack. It is the opium of the people. We might even be unconsciously chained to our busyness because it helps us avert thinking about our mortality (see Shuffling Deck Chairs on the Titanic: A Terror Management Perspective on Idleness Aversion and Preference for Busyness by Ross Rogers).

It is crucial to hold a cultural lens up to modern busyness norms. Parading or advertising your lack of time for relaxation — embedding ‘I’m busy’ into everyday casual greetings — might make as much sense in another culture as gleefully announcing that you are having a nervous breakdown (see A geography of busyness by Robert Levine). ‘I’m busy’ is only taken up as a cultural trope in societies where busyness is assumed to mark social value. We certainly don’t ‘complain’ about being busy because it causes others to think less of us, but this outcome is certainly not universal, culturally speaking.

Imagine if we were to temporarily step outside of our busyness and examine it from the outside. Why are we so damn obsessed with doing stuff all the time? Busy — is this the way we want to live and define our lives? Given the objectively absolute fact that we are only here for a limited time, is busyness even a rational benchmark for quantifying the value of our existence? To what extent do we ‘choose’ to be busy — or to what extent are we caught up in a toxic cultural motif or script?

What if busyness isn’t good for us? Pardon the heresy for a moment, but let’s honestly question whether our affair with busyness as status is benign. Extrapolating from the studies above, let’s consider some possible synonyms for ‘I’m busy’:

‘I am sought after and valuable.’

‘I am socially mobile.’

‘I am what I accomplish.’

‘I eschew leisure and rest.’

‘I can’t stop achieving.’

If someone responded to a simple ‘How are you doing?’ with one of these lines, eyebrows would raise. These statements sound more like admissions uttered in a counselling session than a cordial greeting in the office hallway. But cloak these same insecurities in a catchall ‘I’m busy,’ and nobody bats an eye. On the contrary, it is a status marker.

For the sake of pushing our inquiry outside of the literature on the subject, let’s suppose that all the above studies and theories are bunk. Instead, let’s hypothesize that we individually compel ourselves to be busy in a complete vacuum of all these other social, economic, and psychological factors. When it comes to our schedules and how we describe ourselves, let’s imagine that we are self-made islands. Given this assumption, do the following synonyms of ‘I’m busy’ serve us any better?

‘I am overcommitted to the point that I can’t define my state of being as tranquil and at peace.’

‘I have systematically unrealistic expectations for what I can physically get done in 168 hours a week.’

‘I am unclear on the most critical priorities and am subsequently pulled in too many directions.’

The dictionary defines busy as ‘having a great deal to do’ or ‘full of activity,’ but I am tentatively considering a new personal definition of busyness for myself: busyness is the absence of clarity. At any given moment, I could probably compile a to-do list that is mathematically unachievable in the remaining hours of my lifetime. To attempt to do everything I could do — and everything other people want me to do — would consume every waking moment of my life, with little to zero chance of fulfillment or completion. The option to ‘do more’ is perpetual, persistent, and relentless. To pursue everything I could do amounts to a futile attempt at the impossible. The only way out is to only engage in the activities that truly matter most, within bounded parameters that protect family, rest, leisure, and personal interests. The alternative to being busy is having clear priorities about what constitutes the highest value, triaged within strict parameters, and then defiantly walking away from everything else that falls below the threshold. From this perspective, the ‘I’m busy’ humblebrag might amount to advertising the point that I am not good at setting priorities and boundaries. On this count, it is a rather self-defeating thing to brag about.

In summary, it seems that ‘I’m busy’ functions as a social status indicator because it insists that other people depend on me. Busyness as status validates my self-importance by flaunting my responsibility and accountability, but without necessarily naming anything specific. It assumes the response, Well, if he has so much to do, other people must think he’s important. On this count, busyness amounts to a shell game that we are all using to sham each other.

We would be remiss not to acknowledge that some people are busy in very real and meaningful ways. For instance, a single parent of multiple young children, simultaneously juggling low paying gigs to make ends meet, might rightly be described as busy. It would be incoherent to describe this parent’s busyness as over-compensation for personal insecurities, poor priority setting, or need for social validation. But does such a person tend to define themselves as busy? Anecdotally speaking, it seems to me that the people who are the most self-sacrificially divested of themselves in the service of others do not tend to be people who flaunt their busyness as a status symbol. (From my limiting scoping for this post, it seems the literature on busyness needs someone to design a study to explore this hypothesis.)

Another category of so-called ‘busyness’ might be the schedule of an exploited worker, indentured servant, or slave — a person who’s autonomy over their activity and physical direction are usurped by someone else by force, coercion, or some kind of manipulation. But I suspect, say, the prisoner of a concentration camp does not describe the work demands of their enslavement as ‘busyness.’ Torture, exploitation, and trafficking are something quite distinct from busyness. In both of these previous scenarios, claiming busyness does not seem to serve a status function, and neither is it necessarily is self-imposed, which I think omits such scenarios from the critique of this essay. The behaviour we have scrutinized here is primarily the signalling of busyness that reinforces class status, privilege, or ambition.

Describing myself as busy is a declaration I can no longer continue to state in good conscience. At best, it is a self-description that reflects poor planning and prioritization on my part. At worst, it feels like uncritical participation in a social pecking order game that is incongruent with other personal values. I shudder to think of self-narrating a life worthy of ‘He Was Busy’ for an epitaph.

So, what to say when people ask, ‘How are you doing?’

In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh tells the story of a new meditation practitioner who grew aggravated and annoyed when driving in congested traffic. Hanh’s advice: when you see the red brake light of the car ahead of you, take it as a reminder to breathe and acknowledge the present moment. I have adopted ‘How are you doing?’ as a kind of conversational ‘brake light.’ Ask me the question and I will pause, think, take a breath, and then tell you about something for which I have immense gratitude. I choose to go my grave being thankful for the opportunity to have lived, not with regret for scurrying it all away.