Busyness What is Busyness Impacts of Busyness Why are we so Busy? Busyness Culture Becoming Busy Alternatives to Busyness Busyness Practice & Exercises Busyness Resources

“If someone says they’re busy… are they just leading you on or are they busy for real?” -User 492019, Yahoo Answers

The question for the ages! Is the person you’re interested in actually busy, or do they simply not want to hang out with you? On Yahoo Answers, User 492019 wanted to know – what does my romantic interest mean when they say they’re too busy to hang out? Are they really busy? Or what’s the deal?

What do We Really Mean When We Say We’re Busy?

What do we really mean when we say we are busy? Are you just saying the phrase so you won’t hurt someone’s feelings? Or, are you actually busy?

From big-name business news sites to cultural review magazines to instructive blog posts, the entire internet has opinions about the true meaning of the phrase “I’m busy.” Some articles say that being “busy” means you have your priorities straight.1 Others say that declaring “I’m busy” means you’re unproductive; caught up in meaningless tasks.2 According to Urban Dictionary, a site commonly used to define colloquial phrases with their true meanings, saying “I’m busy” is “a coward’s nice way of saying ‘Leave me alone!’”3

Saying “I’m Busy” is an unspecific way to reply to requests

Saying, “I’m busy,” is an easy way to reply to requests without providing an explanation. Less conflict is involved: saying “I’m busy” may hurt fewer feelings than saying “I’m not interested.” Saying “I’m busy” might feel more socially acceptable than saying “I’d prefer to rest.” Or, if someone’s activity level is actually particularly high, saying “I’m busy” could be the quickest way to signal to others you have no time without stopping to explain all the reasons why. The phrase can really mean any number of things.

The Harlameighs | Sorry I’m Busy

The Nashville Indie duo provides the perspective in their song, “Sorry I’m Busy” that the phrase is short for feeling “socially paralyzed,” or avoiding being specific.  It’s much easier to use the standard excuse than to go into depth or reveal real information.

Be more specific when you decline an invitation; it’s better for relationships.

Partially because of the many interpretations of “I’m busy,” using the phrase can cause interpersonal issues. For our User 492019, the phrase may have led to false hope if their romantic interest was avoiding being honest. And if the romantic interest was truly busy driving, working, hanging out with friends, etc. then User492019 could lose an opportunity to connect with someone if they assume the person is leading them on. A way to avoid this kind of confusion is to communicate more intentionally. Allowing the romantic interest to effectively say what they mean, and allowing User492019 to make decisions without sussing through the ambiguity of “I’m busy.”

Most of us don’t really buy the “I’m busy” excuse.

Even if we don’t realize it, we believe to some degree our time is within our control. So, in the case of User492019, we can understand why they don’t buy what their date said. There can be social expectations that can get in the way of even a sincere excuse about being busy. In 2019, a cohort of Harvard Business school affiliates studied the relational impact of using a time excuse (i.e. “I don’t have enough time”) versus using a money excuse (i.e. “I don’t have enough money”) when declining an invitation.4 One of the researchers, Grant Donneley, assistant professor of marketing at Ohio State University, wondered if it would be better to decline a friend’s wedding invitation by saying he didn’t have enough time, or by saying he didn’t have enough money.

“While I was excited for my friend, two big concerns jumped to mind: traveling to Paris would not only cost a lot of money, it would take up most of my limited vacation time.” 5 In this vein, one of the studies Donnelly conducted surveyed 327 brides and grooms in the midst of planning their weddings and asked questions about the closeness they felt in their relationships with people that had declined their wedding invitations for either time or money reasons.

Time is seen as easier to control than money

As predicted by Donnelly et. al., the brides and grooms felt less close with the friends that declined invitations for time reasons, and closer with the friends that declined invitations for money reasons. Donnelly’s team provides an explanation for this outcome in their paper “Communicating Resource Scarcity”: Time is seen as easier to control than money. “We propose that because time is perceived as a more personally controllable resource than money, excuses about limited time (vs. limited money) reduce trust, and in turn, reduce perceptions of interpersonal closeness.” 6 Because we tend to think of money as less controllable than time, saying “I don’t have enough time” may communicate a lack of care in a friendship, while saying “I don’t have enough money,” may be seen as a factor that the friend had no control over, and increase feelings of interpersonal closeness, since the friend is vulnerable enough to share that information. Donneley et. al also found that in situations where using money as an excuse would be inappropriate (i.e. in certain workplace settings), saying “I don’t have enough energy” was also better for the relationship than saying “I don’t have enough time.7

As we can see from the study above, there can be a lot of unspoken interpretations behind being busy. Using the worksheet below, feel free to take a moment to reflect on how you use the phrase, “I’m busy.” Is it a stand-in for something else?

Defining Busyness

A language can say a lot about a culture. For instance, the different Inuit peoples throughout northern Canada and Alaska, have reportedly dozens of words for types of snow. Their day to day realities require their language to reflect distinctions between different conditions.

With that in mind, in 2013, Dr. Susan Koven of the Massachusetts General Hospital observed in her Boston Globe column that our culture has a wide variety of words and phrases that can be used to describe busyness: “Being excessively busy has become so much a part of our culture that we’ve developed an extended vocabulary for it…tapped out, laid flat, on overload, crazy busy, fried.”7 Although there is some debate as to whether the Inuit people have as many words for snow as initially believed,8 Koven’s observation points to a phenomenon we may be familiar with: at least in the English language, we talk a lot about being busy. We talk about it so much that we have dozens of ways to say that same phrase. What might this indicate about our culture, and the language that is essential enough to us that it enters into our colloquial language dozens of different ways?

Scholarly Definitions of Busyness

Our colloquial verbiage for describing busyness is extensive. And beyond the slang, there are still many definitions for the words “busy” and “busyness” themselves, broadening the word even further… who knew busyness was so important to our language?

In the past, researchers have attempted to objectively define “busyness” with quantifiable metrics. Many of these definitions describe busyness with some time metric, or by counting a number of activities. Some include room for a subjective evaluation by self-report, in order to account for feelings of busyness in addition to an exact activity level.

In Conspicuous Consumption of Time, Belleza et al. review the ways in which people’s perceptions have shifted to aspire to busyness rather than leisure over time. In order to explore this question, Belleza et al. use a quantifiable metric of busyness to compare time periods objectively; however, they also consider qualitative factors as well: “We define busyness as long hours of remunerated employment and lack of leisure time…we operationalize busyness in our studies by the amount of time the person allocates to work versus leisure. We also consider speed (pace at which work is performed) and meaning (level of meaning and enjoyment tied to work) as two other relevant dimensions for the conceptualization of busyness.” 9 There goes that important word again: meaning – something Belleza et al. found important to include when studying time consumption. This definition is helpful because it includes both objective time factors and subjective experience.

In A Geography of Busyness, Robert Levine uses a simple (and catchy) equation to define busyness: “BUSYNESS = SPEED + ACTIVITY”. Proposing that feeling busy is a subjective experience, Levine uses these two dimensions to investigate differences in busyness across varying cultures. “Speed refers to the rate at which an activity is performed. It is the amount of activity per unit of time…The second component of busyness, activity, is the absence of unscheduled time. It is the amount of time that is consumed with activity; or, the ratio of doing things to doing nothing.” His equation wasn’t meant to be super mathematical, but if you want to get very mathematical with it:

But this may be starting to feel too much like a standardized test. The important thing is, Levine is primarily interested in studying feelings of busyness across cultures by looking at the speed at which activities are completed, and the number of activities to complete. When he uses this baseline of an equation, he can compare a number to a myriad of different feelings associated with that number.

This idea of a numerical baseline may be a useful tool in studying our own busyness and the emotions associated with it. Here’s a score sheet where you could get started on your own study:

Another definition of busyness especially allows room for cultural or workplace expectations by taking into account “what is expected” while evaluating activity patterns. “Busyness is a subjective state, which results from the individual’s assessment of their own recent or expected activity patterns, in the light of current norms and expectations.” Time researcher, Jonathan Gershuny, defines busyness as a subjective state assessed by the individual, with current norms and expectations in mind. We’ll return to this definition of busyness since one’s personal sense of busyness can certainly be impacted by cultural comparisons.

Definitions of Busyness

Engagement

Sustained engagement in mentally challenging activities.

Excessive

Excessively detailed or decorated.

Lack of Leisure

Long hours of remunerated employment and lack of leisure time.

Time Perspective

The subjective evaluation of one’s ongoing activity patterns, including reflections about the quantity of one’s unscheduled time and comparisons to what is expected or standard.

Amuse

To amuse/entertain oneself.

Activity Speed

BUSYNESS = SPEED + ACTIVITY.

The subjective experience of feeling busy has two main components: speed and activity.

Big To Do List

Having a great deal to do.

Meddling

Foolishly or intrusively active.

Occupied

Engaged in action.

Restlessness

A state of mind and existence wherein one cannot allow oneself to experience a sense of leisure and introspection that allows for rest, self-reflection, and self-development.

Bustling

Full of activity.

Our Definition of Busyness

With so many different definitions of busyness, where does this leave us? What does “busy” really mean? Drawing from these definitions, and a general sense of the way busyness is defined in research, we will break busyness into two parts: the objective, measurable level of activity (taking into account activity density as well as total hours of activity), and the subjective experience of activity, (as informed by personal needs for rest, personal perception of time, and cultural comparisons).

And, as you will learn, the objective measure of activity and the subjective feeling of busyness are two different sorts of being busy, and can be addressed with different strategies.

The Subjectivity of Busyness

“Scarcity tells us that in order to do more, have more, or be more, we have to constantly hustle. But instead let’s lean into this truth that there is abundance if we are simply open to it.” — Bonnie Bakhtiari

Scarcity

Our world provides us with an inexhaustible supply of problems to solve, things to do, items to buy, people to meet, and dreams to achieve; and a limited amount of time to do so (…until we solve the “mortality problem,” that is). Choosing priorities can be difficult. There’s a strong desire to “do it all.” And each person’s needs and desires are unique. If there’s one thing we can control, it’s the goals we set for ourselves in life, and how we navigate achieving our desires. If we narrow down what we are trying to accomplish, it could lead to a deep sense of meaning and a lightened sense of busyness – striking that perfect balance: spending our time only on what matters to us.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

When there is an imbalance between our virtually unlimited desires/needs, and our limited resources and time, it can lead to a feeling called “time scarcity.” We only have a limited amount of time on earth… how can we get it all done?!?!?!

Our world provides us with an inexhaustible supply of problems to solve, things to do, items to buy, people to meet, and dreams to achieve; and a limited amount of time to do so (…until we solve the “mortality problem,” that is). Choosing priorities can be difficult. There’s a strong desire to “do it all.” And each person’s needs and desires are unique. If there’s one thing we can control, it’s the goals we set for ourselves in life, and how we navigate achieving our desires. If we narrow down what we are trying to accomplish, it could lead to a deep sense of meaning and a lightened sense of busyness — striking that perfect balance: spending our time only on what matters to us.

But it doesn’t always turn out that way.

When there is an imbalance between our virtually unlimited desires/needs, and our limited resources and time, it can lead to a feeling called “time scarcity.” We only have a limited amount of time on earth… how can we get it all done?!?!?!

When we feel that our time is scarce, and there are simply not enough resources available to us to fulfill all of our needs and desires, we may feel like we have to be busy. We may say to ourselves, “I must be busier in order to fulfill all of my desires!” “I must pack in as much as possible!” Resulting in even less time, and funnily enough, an even stronger feeling to add more into our lives.

Feelings of time scarcity cause stress, and in turn, may lead to more busybody behavior.

“People who feel time scarce will commonly try to alleviate their time famine by engaging in time-deepening behaviors (e.g., speeding up, shortening and substituting activities, and multi-tasking)— behaviors that have the ironic consequence of making people feel even more rushed and time scarce.”

In other words, when we’re stressed because we’re busy, we often try to become more busy in order to alleviate that emotion. Individual to each person, working towards achieving specific desires and needs could mean very different things. Being busy can feel like a solution to the problem of scarcity, whether the scarcity be a scarcity of achievements, money, happiness, etc. Or, the ever pervasive Disease of Being Busy… busyness for the sake of it, since we don’t even know what we are working towards! And, humans are natural conformists,20 so our desires and habits in life are likely influenced by the time period and cultural milieu in which we live, and may influence our desire to increase busyness in order to achieve all that we think we should.

Certain people are also especially vulnerable to a scarcity mentality,21 which is “the belief that there will never be enough,” 22 perhaps due to sustained life experiences within which resources to meet vital needs were scarce, or perhaps due to an anxious disposition, a cultural norm, or all of the above. This feeling can be pervasive and unconsciously guide our actions.

This scarcity mentality, which can occur regardless of whether or not one’s needs are being met, can lead to a pervasive sense of anxiety or a desire to stay busy, out of the thought that it may generate a more desired mentality or state of being. It can also lead to poor decision-making, as it is a mindset that consumes mental bandwidth that could normally be delegated to critical thinking.23 And, becoming accustomed to scarce resources can create a scarcity mentality that sustains even if basic needs are met later. “The scarcity mindset is the belief that there will never be enough — whether it’s money, food, emotions or something else entirely — and as a result, [one’s] actions and thought stem from a place of lack.”24 Of course, there are times in life when resources are scarce, and busyness feels out of control because it’s a necessity for basic needs to be met. This is the most stressful type of busyness, which takes a real toll on mental and physical wellbeing.25

“A good ad should be like a good sermon: It must not only comfort the afflicted, it also must afflict the comfortable.” – Bernice Fitz-Gibbon

Staying busy can be our way of attempting to reduce what’s lacking, but can also come from a mindset about scarce resources rather than a reality. It can lessen the very critical thinking skills that may be required to generate a real and enduring solution. The advertising industry is notoriously skilled at planting the idea that we are all lacking, and can purchase our way out of that lack. A successful advertisement identifies a perceived lack, and introduces a product that could “erase” that lack.

A sense of perceived lack is a tool used to propel consumerism, productivity, and even certain cultures.

Scarcity can seep into our lives without us even realizing it. Take a few moments to reflect on where it may pop up in your life:

The Opposite of Scarcity is Abundance

“The first step toward discarding a scarcity mentality involves giving thanks for everything you have.

– Wayne Dyer

One of the best ways to discard a scarcity mentality is to practice seeing one’s life as abundant, and resources as readily available. What do I already have that I can be grateful for? What exists within me without having to do anything at all? These questions can bring a sense of peace and appreciation to life that allays anxious feelings about having to constantly be “on the go.” If what is is already enough, then there’s nothing to work towards – especially in terms of one’s self-esteem, achievements, or material possessions. Opening one’s eyes to what already exists as a consistent practice can be a healthy way of skewing a mindset more towards abundance than scarcity.

Shifting to an Abundance Mindset
It can take practice to incorporate an abundance mindset into our day-to-day. Here is a printout that can help!

Time Use Diary

“If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. Money has value. Wasting it seems nuts. And yet we see others—and ourselves—throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.” – The Shortness of Time

A way of tracking activity used throughout time research is the Time Use Diary (TUD), a tool used to write down and remember activities done throughout the day. TUDs can be used to compare subjective experiences of time scarcity with objective measures of activity level, and help us identify purpose.

TUDs can be an easy way to identify which swaths of time you are using to fulfill essential needs, and which swaths you are using to pursue inessential desires. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing inessential desires – in fact your ‘wants’ are extremely helpful clues in understanding what you value, and where purpose comes into your life – but tracking your own personal pursuits can help you prioritize them, and make sure your time usage is in line with your priorities. 26

Time Use Diaries typically track 24-48 hours in 15-minute increments. More detailed versions of the diaries include space to write down primary and secondary (sometimes even tertiary) activities.27

For a more personal version of the time diary, writing in detail in a journal what you did each day with timestamps can be useful as well. While researching for her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has The Time, Brigid Schulte kept track of what she did each day for a year, to be analyzed by time researcher John Robinson.28 Depending on how thoroughly you wish to analyze your own time, you can adjust your TUD as necessary.

A good place to start is with this TUD that breaks down the day into 15-minute increments. Rather than planning out your day in advance, use the spaces to write down what you did during the day, in 15-minute chunks. Understanding your own time usage can help when prioritizing and identifying values later on.

Perceptions of Busyness & Time

“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” -William Shakespeare

Busyness, much like happiness or beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. As the respondent on StackExchange pointed out, ‘workload’ does not necessarily equate to ‘busyness’ – one person’s workload could leave them very busy, while that same workload for someone else could make them not busy at all. For example, if you completed a kindergartener’s math homework, it might take 15 minutes – but it could keep the kindergartener busy for a whole evening. Or, maybe the kindergartener wouldn’t describe the homework as having kept her busy. Maybe she would say the homework left her feeling “fulfilled” or “amazed.” Or, more likely, “bored.” If that homework was the only item on her to-do list that night, she might even say “I’m not very busy today.” If she was used to having no homework at all, she might say “Why am I so busy??” One’s experience and perspective certainly impacts the way in which busyness is viewed, as well as the feelings associated with being busy.

Being engaged with one’s purpose in life can be a profoundly meaningful experience. Being busy can keep scary thoughts away, turn nervous energy into action, or prototype potential lifestyles by sneaking up on the future. Or busyness can be a crutch used to escape; a coping mechanism for anxiety; a tool for consumerism; a way to avoid quiet, stillness, and rest. Determining the role that busyness plays in your life will take personal reflection, and a study of your perceptions on busyness and time. Whether you hope to change your own habits or not, this section can provide insights into your behavior, its impacts, its benefits, and its points for improvement.

Busyness is subjective. What is your relationship with busyness, and what does it tell you about what you find meaningful?

Summary

  • We learned why there’s so much confusion around the word busyness – it’s used to mean so many different things! Because of this ambiguity, using more specific language can help you be more transparent in your relationships and cultivate trust. After all, we tend to think that time is more controllable than other factors like money and energy! Because of this, it can be helpful to explain declined invitations beyond simply saying “I’m too busy.”
  • We learned that we say “busy” in so many different ways! There are dozens of colloquial ways to say “I’m busy,” as well as a variety of different scholarly definitions for the words “busy” and “busyness.” What does this say about our culture? Perhaps that we talk about being busy a lot.
  • We created our own definition of busyness; as defined by the objective, measurable level of activity in one’s life, as well as the subjective experience of busyness (including stress and overwhelm.) Using both of these as jumping off points can be a more specific way to assess your own busyness and evaluate its impact on your life!
  • We learned about scarcity, and how stress can be caused by an experience of scarcity, even in relation to time. This stress can provoke us into behaviors that actually help us focus less, and make us even slower. Having this knowledge can help remind us to take a step back when stressed, and realize that multitasking will not help us get everything done.
  • We were introduced to the concept of Time Use Diaries, which have been used to study time for… a long time. It’s easy to conduct our own time studies in order to be more scientific and organized about our own time usage.

Busyness comes in all shapes and sizes, and is unique to every individual! Only you know how your level of activity is affecting you, and how to navigate that in your relationships.

Busyness What is Busyness Impacts of Busyness Why are we so Busy? Busyness Culture Becoming Busy Alternatives to Busyness Busyness Practice & Exercises Busyness Resources

References

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  2. Morrison, L. (2017, February 22). This is what you really mean when you say ‘I’m busy’. BBC Worklife. Retrieved February 15, 2022, from https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20170222-this-is-what-you-really-mean-when-you-say-im-busy
  3. I’m busy. Urban Dictionary. (n.d.). Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=I%27m+busy
  4. Burnison, G., & Contributor. (2020, April 22). Stop saying ‘I’m so busy.’ Harvard researchers say this is what successful people do instead. CNBC. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/25/stop-saying-im-busy-harvard-study-reveals-how-successful-people-say-no-and-protect-their-time.html
  5. Donnelly, G. (2019, March 12). Why “I don’t have Time” is a bad way to decline an invitation. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://hbr.org/2019/03/why-i-dont-have-time-is-a-bad-way-to-decline-an-invitation
  6. Donnelly, G. E., Wilson, A. V., Whillans, A. V., & Norton, M. I. (2019). Communicating Resource Scarcity. Harvard Business School.
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