Being Busy Is Not Cool

You can unclench.


The Harvard Business Review recently reported that Americans are “impressed by busyness.” What this means, they say, is that our mainstream culture conflates the amount of things you have going on with how important you are. So, say you’re the person who arrives at the office holiday party two hours late and then leaves earlier than the rest of the guests because you “have another thing you need to get to.” While in the mid-2oth century that would have registered as a low-status social maneuver (i.e.,: “This person doesn’t have control of their leisure time because they’re beholden to a boss and therefore must not be a boss themselves”), it now registers as high-status to a lot of people (i.e.,: “You must be in such demand and have so many irons in the fire that you cannot dedicate a set block of time to any one activity.”). They conducted several social experiments to test different facets of this phenomenon, and each of them suggested the same conclusion: in the 21st century, being busy makes you seem successful to others.

You probably won’t have to look far to notice examples of it in your day-to-day. A simple, “How’re things?” or “What’d you get up to this weekend?” usually get met with an, “Ugh! Swamped!” or, “So much!” Saying something like, “I kept it lowkey and watched TV,” or, “Eh, ran some errands,” might seem like not enough of a list, even when it’s the truth—but what does it mean when we feel the truth is too boring or not engaging enough?

Because I personally only understand the world through different types of animals, I’m going to use an animal analogy to describe what I think. Let’s say you’re leading a horse and a donkey toward a river. When you reach the little slope that dips down to the riverbank, both of them are gonna pause and be like, “Hey, is this a good idea?” Typically, with a horse, maybe you tug the rope a little and, even though he’s still skeptical, a lot of the time he’ll defer to your logic. “I must be missing something here, it must be safe if you’re saying it is.” He’ll walk down the bank to investigate. The donkey is the opposite. If he has stopped to assess a situation and you try to force his hand before he’s ready, he digs in even deeper. “Oh you’re in a hurry? Now we’re definitely not crossing the river.” Convincing behavior can be a signal of emotional bias, which can be a signal of poor judgment. In other words, if you need me to cross this river so badly, you’re probably not thinking of my best interest too closely, so let me look over your work. And if you want to rush me along? Seems like a tally mark in the “scam” column tbh. Busyness is the river our culture is trying to get us to cross.

To use another example, let’s say someone bursts into the office on Monday morning announcing that everyone has to see the new Star Wars movie because it’s amazing and they’ve never seen anything like it. I’d immediately assume, “This person doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” Why? Because I am a donkey. I know anyone who’s seen a movie that moved them emotionally or made them them think some new thoughts doesn’t automatically burst through a door like a manic sitcom character evangelizing everyone they encounter. That’s not how that feeling acts. And it’s the same with being busy: signifying is not the same as being.

Think of the most successful person you know. The most fulfilled person. Maybe their job is popping off, maybe their relationships are really stable—whatever your metric is, I want you to conjure them in your head. When you talk to them, do they seem overwhelmed by their shit? Is it as though you have encountered a drowning person and they are grasping onto you for dear life? Or do they seem as though they try to take on only as much as they can handle at a given time and do their best to do a really good job at just those things? For me it’s the latter. I would like to be like them.

And that’s not to say that we all shouldn’t have stuff going on—it’s the opposite actually. We should all be making time in our schedules to pursue activities or plans that might not be “pertinent” in a branding sense, but that are “important” to our “personalities” and “interests.” Say, learning to do pottery or cooking a steak. Planning a weekend with some friends. Attending a reading on a topic you want to know more about. Those examples are very 101, but they would also ostensibly matter to the participant in a way that hitting up 75 birthday parties in one weekend would not, and how is that not more aspirational?

Being busy isn’t impressive, and being stressed from being busy isn’t a sign of success—it’s a sign that you don’t know how to say no or take care of yourself. Tired? Sounds like it’s time to go home! Too many things in one afternoon? Seems like you need to learn how to edit! You’re in control of your time, and if you’re spending it doing things you don’t want to do, or if you’re spread too thin because you say yes to it all, that’s on you. There’s nothing riveting or confusing about it. We can all make better choices for ourselves. Address your own needs. Birthday party 73 will not miss you, I promise.

Anyway, broad culture is obviously disseminating the opposite messaging chicness-wise, and I just wanted you to know there are people like me out there observing you too. And we think you sound tired.