What Our Obsession With Telling People We're Busy Really Says About Us

What Our Obsession With Telling People We're Busy Really Says About Us
Source: Flickr
Source: Flickr

"I met a guy on OkCupid. Before our first date, we had already rescheduled it about three times," Maggie*, 27, told Mic. "It was about a month before we actually went for a drink. I don't know. I guess we were both so busy."

Sound familiar? That's because we now live in an era in which being busy is the norm. We have nightly plans Monday through Sunday, our calendars are filled to the half-hour and scheduling to meet up with someone can feel like herding a bunch of over-exhausted kittens. 

But this presents something of a paradox. As much as the need to stay busy fulfills us, we're also resentful of our chock-full schedules. We have entered the age of busyness — and it's driving us nuts. 

Source: Giphy

We're all "so busy": Of the millennials Mic polled, all described themselves as "busy." Some even went as far to say they were "extremely busy." For most, that involved days of work, workouts, dinner with friends, dates or time spent with significant others. Scheduling is more like a calculation than making a plan with friends.

"My boyfriend and I have our weekends booked straight through early October, which sounds absurd because it is," Derek*, 27, told Mic. "But when you only have two days a week in which to squeeze all your friends/family/travel in, shit fills up fast."

Because of those endless full plates, making plans can sometimes feel like an arms race to see who has a more jam-packed schedule. 

"When I tell my friends I'm busy, they interpret it like I'm humblebragging in some way, or they try to one-up me by talking about how busy they are," Mary*, 26, who works 12 hours a day, told Mic. "It's such a common buzzword that when you drop it into a convo, it inevitably results in a competition over who's the busiest."

Filling the Google Calendar void: We strive for busyness for a number of reasons, but the primary reason seems to be that we feel insecure about our idle time. So we cram our schedules to avoid thinking about the alternative: an empty life. Nowhere is this better explained than in Tim Kreider's landmark 2012 New York Times piece "The 'Busy' Trap":

"Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day."

Even though our full schedules drive us crazy, busyness gives our lives a sense of purpose. After all, if we're not busy shuttling from a rock concert to a book release party to a wine tasting, then we must be lazy — or worse, not cool enough to be invited anywhere. 

Being busy "mostly makes me feel like 'OK, I have a life," and I'm doing things most of the time. Like it makes me feel positive that I don't just go home and do nothing after work every day," Sophia*, 24, told Mic.

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A cultural badge of honor: The pressure to be busy seems especially acute in urban areas where careers, success and benchmark experiences are the meat of social conversations. In the social media-fueled era of the "personal brand," keeping busy means maintaining the image of someone with a lot of ambition. Busyness has become a bragging right.

Our daily habits also reflect our cultural mandate of busyness. Professionals stay at their desks for more than 50 hours a week. The average amount of sleep we get has waned to a mere 6.1 hours a night, while our smartphone use has tallied up to five hours per day. Apps tracking everything from our latest assignment to the steps we've taken make us feel like we need to be constantly task oriented. 

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Keeping up with the stream: As with most cultural phenomena, technology and our increasing reliance on social media makes it a whole lot easier to both be and appear busy.

"Having constant access to email really blurs the lines between your personal and private life," Mary*, 26, told Mic. "Thank God I don't have Slack on my phone or else I'd just go berserk."

Because Facebook, Instagram and newsletters have made it that much easier to stay aware of the week's events, choosing not to go out is sacrilege in a world where knowing what's "going on" and living free of FOMO is the highest achievement. 

As studies have pointed out, surveillance of our friend's trips to Coachella or late nights at the office can easily lead to feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness by comparison. If we do opt to spend a Saturday night on a Game of Thrones binge, it can feel like we're just moving backward in our un-busy lives, while everyone else is "killing it."

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The guilt and thrill of "doing nothing": As much as being busy may feel like an emblem of personal accomplishment, there's also another side of the coin: A lot of us don't really want to be booked 24/7. 

"Whenever I say 'I'm busy,' it makes me feel a combination of accomplished and overwhelmed," Mary said. "I like that I'm filling my time with work that fulfills me in some way, but I don't like that there's too much of it, and I often feel guilty when I don't see the people close to me."

At times, there's an unfruitfulness to being busy, because it means never having the time to reflect or have fun for fun's sake. "Embracing any rare period of possible downtime almost feels like a betrayal to my busy-ness. It's like, 'Think of all the shit you could be doing to prevent being stressed out tomorrow or the next day.' It's basically the worst cycle ever," Derek said.

While keeping busy may be a surefire way to get that promotion or look enviable on social media, what's often left unsaid is that it is, ultimately, exhausting. Busyness works best when it's productive, not pathological. And as the prevalence of flaking proves, a lot of us would secretly rather take time out of their schedules and stay in for a night of Seamless and curling up with a book. 

As Lori*, 27, who has a demanding schedule, told Mic: "There is nothing I would like more than to DO NOTHING."

*Some names have been changed to allow subjects to speak freely on private matters.  

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Kate Hakala

Kate is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mic. A former editor of Nerve, her writing has also appeared in the The New York Times, Playboy, Refinery29, Salon, and The Daily Dot. On most days she is thinking of Louis C.K.

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