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No One Cares How Busy You Are

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I’m going to let you in on one of the best-kept secrets of the universe, a twinkling gem of Deep Human Truth once whispered to me by a benevolent willow tree with the voice of my late grandmother:

“Everyone is fucking busy.”

I know, I know. It’s crazy. We only live inside our own bodies and brains, and therefore have a tendency to feel that is only us who must balance work, social lives, and personal obligations. We only know of our conflicting appointments, cancelled lunches, late nights at the office, or projects with devastatingly-short turnarounds. It’s only human to imagine the world as one large calendar with our obligations on it, a calendar to which everyone has access and around which everyone must plan. But it turns out that literally every person in the world — at least at certain points throughout their lives, including possibly this one — are really fucking busy. They have things to do, commitments to balance, late nights to pull. Their jobs are difficult or time-consuming (or both, often while paying very little money!), and their busy-ness is not at all in conflict with, or mutually exclusive with, your own.

Now, this probably all seems obvious to the point of being condescending — and it is, if you are one of the people who already understands all of these concepts, and puts them in practice in their daily lives. This article is not directed at you! This article is for the people who seem to forget that being permanently-busy and vocal about it is a) really grating for everyone around them, b) nothing to be proud of, and c) not something that makes you superior to anyone else. Being busy is not a competition, being overworked is not a point of pride, and having to cancel or show up late frequently doesn’t make you an enviable mogul who is “having it all” — it makes you an asshole.

But we live in a society that, especially in urban professional environments, views the concept of a work/life balance as a superfluous luxury. We live in a work environment that is so competitive and crushing that full-time unpaid internships are viewed as a norm, and jobs that constantly overflow into every category of one’s life as simply a byproduct of Doing What You Love. We’re supposed to draw so much validation, identity, and meaning from our jobs that, if we are constantly on the verge of emotional collapse or physical exhaustion from them, that must mean that we’re just really good employees who really fucking love their jobs. Combine this with the cloying — and highly-impossible — concept of “having it all,” and you have a world where talking constantly about how busy and stressed you are has become a humblebrag, instead of a cry for help.

And we all know that person who is constantly humblebragging about their busy-ness, telling you how they are at the office until 10 PM for the nth evening in a row, or pulling a weekend’s worth of work to finish a project, or have to plan a lunch six weeks in advance because they are “sooooo jam packed,” showing up late to engagements because their time is precious, and yours is disposable. We know that person, because they make themselves known at every turn. They want people to know and acknowledge how busy they are, because if they aren’t getting social validation via being recognized as the one who is doing this whole professional thing the best/hardest, what is any of it for?

The truth, of course, is that the appropriate response to someone who constantly talks about their borderline-illegal working hours and crushing social schedule is A) no one cares, and/or B) it sounds like you should find a new job. The truth is that the only possibilities are that they are exaggerating to martyr themselves, and are no busier than anyone else, in which case, no one cares. Or they actually are in a destructive and, again, likely illegal relationship with their job, in which case they should find a new fucking job. Either way, the solution is not “constantly telling people how ~tOtALLy SwAmPeD~ they are,” while doing nothing productive about it.

We could all spend our time telling people how utterly chaotic our lives are, and it’s natural and healthy to, from time to time, explain a temporary state of increased stress or occupation. Everyone should be sympathetic and understanding to a loved one who is going through a period of difficult work/life balance, and may not be able to make that one thing, or call you back in a timely manner. But the key is that it’s a transient moment that is being resolved, because the only healthy way to maintain relationships is to not constantly be in a state of blowing them off because your boss abuses you or you agree to too many social engagements. There is a difference between occasionally having a tough moment, and basing your personal brand around how utterly busy you are, because we are all busy, and the social contract is that we agree not to constantly tell each other about our personal checklists because we understand that everyone is doing their best to accommodate.

The bottom line is that constantly, endlessly talking about how busy you are is just a form of narcissism. If you really had it that bad — and/or didn’t relish the feeling of being able to constantly blow things off or have a social excuse — you would do something about it in a more long-term sense. But you probably don’t, because being “swamped” is a part of your identity, in the same way a certain outfit or favorite band or workout plan might be. Because we live in a society which, in the most backwards reading of what makes human life valuable and happy, puts social cachet on not being able to live normally and keep basic commitments. And that fucking sucks.

If your job is truly cannibalizing your life, find a new one. If you are just mildly busy, understand that everyone is, and the point of life is navigating that collectively and being understanding of one another. If you constantly feel the urge to tell everyone how packed your life is, restrain yourself. And if your friend is constantly doing that to you, do everyone involved a favor and say “Hey, I’m busy, too. Let’s agree to not make it the first topic of conversation every time we see each other, because that is depressing as shit.”

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  • Hana

    YES! Been lingering around waiting for this article since I saw a forecast for it on Twitter. Which goes to show how busy I am.

    A long time ago I read an article critiquing the “cult of busy” that gently suggested that anyone using “I’m too busy” as a frequent excuse try substituting it with “it’s not a priority.” It’s often an adequate explanation and it’s harsh ring in other circumstances is a good reminder that we can choose how we spend our time.

    • SN

      I like the “it’s not a priority” concept a lot. It seems like it could help sort things internally as well.

    • Squiderous

      I love that “not a priority” concept. It’s also a great thing to say when someone makes condescending comments like “How do you have time to read so much?” Because it’s a priority.

      I am also a big fan of “we all have the same number of minutes as Beyonce,” which I know is a simplification (Beyonce definitely doesn’t do laundry) but I like it anyway.

    • Jack

      totally on board with “it’s not a priority” as well! Happy hours and frequent meet ups with people who are merely acquaintances are not priorities for me. Quality time with a good friend and lots of time to nurture my physical and mental well-being are.

    • Lauren

      I am a firm believer that you have time for things that are important to you (within reason, I know things come up that are unavoidable), and if you “don’t have time,” it’s just not important.

    • N Lewis

      Hey Hana, do you have link to the article you mentioned.
      This topic is EXACTLY why I started my blog because I share the same sentiments with all the comments here. I get super annoyed when people say I’m so busy, or I’m super stressed out because of all consuming jobs or commitments. There’s gotta be a way around this way of living. I’ve lived this way and suffered burn out and a few health issues because of it. And it’s not an acceptable way of living (in my opinion)
      This post just gave me more writing fuel. These are the kinda of conversations and this post is what I try to capture in my blog.

      Thank you to the author for writing this.. I’m kinda late to the comment party, but better late than never!

      Nicky.
      http://www.sincerelybalanced.com

      • Hana

        Hey Nicky, the article is “Are You As Busy As You Think?” by Laura Vanderkam 🙂

        • N Lewis

          Thank you!

  • jdub

    It blows my mind how people can be so proud of the fact that they have literally no time to themselves, aside from showering and sleeping. I didn’t realize that working yourself to the point of exhaustion was something to strive for!
    Here I am, an administrative assistant who has no desire to move up, just because I can leave my job at the office when I leave at 4pm and not have to think about it again until I’m back in the office. I see people around me, checking work emails when they’re on vacation (?????!!!!), leaving voicemails at 8pm on a weeknight, re-arranging personal plans or trips away based on something that’s come up at work, etc. Who the hell wants to live like that? I’m exhausted just imagining it.

    • Serena Vessella

      I’m a surgeon who loves my job. Sure there are parts that suck but the satisfaction that my job gives me is so worth it! And also you make money working into the wee hours of the morning;)

      • jdub

        I totally get that! I work with people who are very passionate about their jobs and take pride in doing a great job, both in and out of the office. I just wish they’d prioritize their own well-being more, so it doesn’t end with half the office getting the flu 🙁

  • SN

    As with many of the things you write about, I am really susceptible to this one as well. But I finally don’t feel the need to defend it – it’s just shitty behavior.

    The truth is, that although I am a glutton for laziness, I LIKE being busy for the most part. And regardless, it’s mostly something I choose, either because I’ve just chosen to take on a lot, or because I’ve procrastinated. And even if you don’t choose it, like you said – everyone is busy. It’s so ridiculous to act important for something that literally everyone experiences.

    And while we’re at it, can we just stop asking people in the professional context, “So you really busy?” if you’re not actually trying to get someone to do something for you (in which case it’s an appropriate question). What a loaded question. I don’t know if it’s just the legal industry, but I hear that question all the time and it’s usually just poorly disguised nosiness.

  • Andrea

    It’s like when someone doesn’t answer your texts and says they’ve just been really busy. Really? Too busy to take literally 10 seconds to text me back? Like you didn’t look at your phone at all for the past four days? You are that busy and important and i am that unimportant? Ugh.

    • Sonic Ruth

      I totally hear what you are saying.That said, your comment gives me anxiety! I sometimes wish I didn’t have a cell phone so I didn’t have to feel obliged to be in constant communication with people all of the time. It feels good to have uninterrupted time sometimes. Am I rude for wishing I didn’t have to text people back? What do other people think about this?

      • Andrea

        I think it depends! My main gripe with this is when people don’t answer when we are 1. making time sensitive plans or 2. it’s a dating scenario and someone is ghosting on me. Don’t lie to me, just say you’re not interested or don’t have time for anything more serious or whatever.

      • SN

        I agree. Instead of feeling obligated to text back immediately, I’ve just stopped apologizing for being busy. I just respond without an excuse and no one seems to take it personally if I do this once in a while.

        • jdub

          Yes! I will read most messages right away, but if it’s not time sensitive I don’t respond right away. My friends and family respect that fact and don’t give me a hard time for getting back to them when it’s good for me to do so.

    • Alexis Graham

      For me, it’s not that I think someone is unimportant when I don’t reply to a text. Unless it’s something that needs a immediate/definite answer (ie: When is your graduation date? I’m currently looking at flight times.), then I really don’t want to have a full blown conversation over text.

  • Jack

    Oh man. I always feel weirdly guilty when people talk about “everyone is sooooooo busy”. Because I am not. I mean I work full time, but otherwise lots of cooking, keeping my apartment clean, and tons of self care (reading, yoga, running). I could definitely schedule more “stuff” into my schedule…….but I don’t want to. Then people are all envious of me having free time but I made it this way!! I say no to a LOT of stuff. It definitely seems like most people have some weird love/hate relationship with being so busy all the time.

    • Jack

      Also what is this weird thing about if you are at home you are not “busy”. I do a LOT at home. It is hella clean in there, and I do a ton of meal prep, reading, editing vlogs, entertaining friends. So many people assume that when I’m at home I’m….looking at the wall?
      Man this topic has me all fired up!

      • Mary Harman

        What vlogs do you edit? Are they your own? I’d love to check them out!

        • Jack

          Yeah they’re my own but I’ve only uploaded 3 so far! The channel is supposed to be geared towards veganism and hiking, but 1 of them is all about when I got to shake hands with Kate Middleton, haha. Would love if you checked it out and subscribed. Thanks Mary!

          https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzh1_74DpgSMmJUumpZwN-g

          • chelseafagan

            Love!!

          • N Lewis

            Hey Chelsea great article. I’m a fellow blogger do you mind if I send you a DM? I have a quick question about the post.

    • Erin

      I feel guilty about not being SO busy as well. My first job out of college was as a tax accountant, working 80 hours a week a lot of the year and I was grossly proud of working so much, just because being busy seemed to mean being important. Now I work 40 hours a week, go to yoga, read A LOT, get 8-9 hours of sleep per night, and my weekends are basically mine to do anything or nothing. I like it 100% better, but I feel uncomfortable and kinda less than when others are busy-bragging.

    • kirstmas

      I totally know what you mean! I want time to do nothing and sloth around.

  • Fritz Vanburgson

    This article is *kisses fingers like a chef*.

  • Violaine

    Preach. My BF is always complaining he’s so busy and will use that as an excuse to avoid so many things he doesn’t like to do – I work just as much (i.e a lot but honestly nothing unmanageable and nothing insane) and I manage just fine. I hate when people kind of talk me down because I have so much time to do X or Y and they ask “But where do you find the time?”, as in “What else should you be doing that you’re not doing?”
    I don’t know, maybe I just made sure I found a job that allows me to do stuff! I had a job that was insanely busy and I had to work at home after work and I was going crazy and had time for nothing. It was horrible and I complained all the time and I was definitely busier than average but I got tired of complaining and being tired!! I quit! And now I get home and read and watch TV and meet my friends and it’s so much better than taking pride in “being busy”. I am busy too- busy reading and busy cooking and busy drinking a beer with my friends! It’s nice!

  • kirstmas

    THANK YOU! I was just having this conversation 2 days ago and it drives me nuts when people go on about their busy lives. Everyone is busy, move on

  • JD

    I’m definitely this way at and about work – always too gd busy, but I like to think it pays off. I’ve been promoted and I’m paid well. I disagree that everyone in the office is busy though, they’re late everyday, talk a lot, cruise the Internet, take long lunches, and sneak out early. They’re also mostly paid less – so that’s the trade off.
    But! I make time for life and friends (on weekends). Work is my main course M-F, but I’m passionate and it works for me.

  • Bri

    I agree with this article in SO many ways, and obviously everyone has time to message back or something small like that. But sometimes I feel like these articles forget about people with families who struggle to get by. Of course that isn’t TFD’s target audience, but my mom has worked and taken care of 3 kids. Sometimes people are just too busy to make what is not right in front of them and essential to their life/family a priority. It breaks my Mom’s heart that she can’t hang out with friends more often, but she’s not in a position to quit her job without her family suffering. People get tired. She can reply to your text but she probably can’t go for drinks this week.

    • jdub

      I think that’s very different than taking pride in overworking though– my best friend is a mum of a 2 year old, pregnant, and works full-time. I know she’s not excited about how busy she is, her and her partner struggle to make sure they spend enough time with the kid, work and spend time with each other. She literally takes entire days to reply to text messages, if at all, but it’s definitely not something she enjoys. It’s a begrudging busyness.

      • Bri

        Yeah she’s definitely not taking pride in it, but when she says she’s too busy, she really is.

  • Summer

    Bravo. There are very few circumstances under which I will acknowledge someone’s busyness with valid compassion and understanding. Yes, it does happen sometimes when there’s a big project and too few people available and shit is off the rails for a few weeks—I get it, and it sucks, and I’m happy to buy you a beer and let you vent about it once or twice. But when this is your life week after week, when you’re constantly making a point to broadcast how many hours you spent at the office, when you’re acting like the most critical cog in the wheel of your workplace and your colleagues couldn’t possibly do it without you……all I can do is assume that you have poor time management skills. I don’t admire people who sit at the office 14+ hours a day. I don’t think you’re “dedicated” or “passionate,” I think you probably lack an ability to effectively prioritize tasks, and/or you’re honestly fine with a shitty work/life balance and you like the attention you think you’re getting by pretending to complain about it. If work is really your ~thing~ that’s fine, but then don’t turn around and tell me how I’m “so lucky” to have time to do things like read or cook or leave town for the weekend. If the shitty circumstances of your shitty job are legitimately out of your realm of control and you’re actually miserable, find a new one. Otherwise, nobody really cares.

    • Same. With some exceptions, my overall admittedly judgy thought when I hear about how sooo perpetually busy someone is at work is that they are unable to manage their time effectively.

    • laura

      This is a really good comment. I guess that every job is different and so is every personal situation, but what you say is very wise. I will take it into consideration in my work life!

  • rjb

    Something you didn’t mention, but should be a corollary: No one cares how tired you are. There’s a simple answer to that problem, which is to get some sleep.

    • Laura Palmer

      every time you say youre tired a new mom pops out of nowhere and says “not as tired as ME”

  • Lexie

    similarly to other CF penned articles, I love the content, despite being IMMEDIATELY put off by the condescending title.

    • chelseafagan

      That’s the CF Guarantee (TM)!

  • Justine

    I’m reading this article and keep thinking about this weird moment with one of my friends.

    I’d asked her if she was interested in meeting up for a happy hour at one of our favorite restaurants, and she immediately pulls out this binder and starts flipping through its pages. She reads each appointment and engagement she’s written down for the next three weeks — this day each week she goes running, then she has dinner with so-and-so, she’s working late that particular night. Would early next month work for me? Wait, she needs to double-check and let me know. It was a very overwhelming way to answer “Hey, if you’re free one of these evenings, want to meet up at [X]?”

    What struck me about it, though, was how she felt the need to justify to me how she was spending her time. It wasn’t enough to say “Oh, it’s going to be busy the next few weeks.” Somehow I needed to know everything she was doing, down to the exercise days she’d scheduled for herself. And it felt kind of intimidating — like, why haven’t I scheduled my days to brim? What am I doing, that I have plenty of time to semi-spontaneously spend half an evening at happy hour? Yes, that’s a shitty, insecure response to have. But it’s still one of those moments where I clearly paused and wondered if I wasn’t ~busy enough~.

    Also, the flip side of competing to see who’s busier? People who truly feel overwhelmed by all their obligations — work, family, friends — convince themselves they shouldn’t complain, since so-and-so over there has one more kid than they do, a spouse out of town, AND still stays longer after hours.

  • victoria g

    yes to this!! also, this applies to dating as well. when someone says they really like you and would love to spend more time with you but oh, man, they are “just so, so busy right now”? yeah, you’re not a priority. my response to that has become exactly what was said in the article: everyone is busy.

  • N Lewis

    Loved this! I couldn’t agree more. This is the reason I started my blog. Glorifying busy is not okay. And you’re right, it doesn’t make any one more superior. You’ve given more fuel for blogging.

    Nicky.
    http://www.sincerelybalanced.com

  • Christine

    Now another post about being tired… everyone is tired! And it’s not something to brag about! 😀