Escaping The Cult of Busy

Note to Self: Life on Garden Time does not mean Life on Frantic Time.

“Oh, I’ve just been so busy.”

“With all the kid’s activities, I’ve just been so busy!”

“With the new job, I’ve just been so busy!”

“I don’t know what it is, it’s just crazy busy right now.”

“Wow, I wish I had time to garden (exercise/volunteer/read/etc.) but I’m just too busy.”

“The past couple months have been insanely busy.”

“Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. You know how it is – busy, busy, busy!”

Busy Times, courtesy the incomparable Geek and Poke, used by permission.

Guilty of Busy Talk?

Look, someone needs to say it: no one cares how busy you are. Well, maybe your mom does, but pretty much no one else. So stop announcing to everyone you talk to how busy you are. We are all busy. Everyone is trying to cram 80 minutes worth of life into each hour of their day, so being busy isn’t unique.

In fact, being that busy might be downright dysfunctional.

  • Being busy does not make you important.
  • Announcing how busy you are is like announcing that you have to take time out of your life to use the bathroom. It’s a given, ok? It does not make the rest of us look at you in wonder or awe or sympathy.
  • Your inability to say no, your lack of boundary setting or your decision to take on too much are not the same as dedication, passion, commitment or helpfulness. Stop confusing these things.
  • Your version of busy is not in any way more significant or world-rocking than anyone else’s version of busy. Stop thinking your busy is busier than other people’s busy.

Every day, most of us drink poison cool-aid from the Cult of Busy. We gulp it down just like we gulp down the coffee that allows us to continue to worship Busy. We make choices – consciously in what we agree to do and by default because we refuse to prioritize – that directly lead to our prostration before Busy.

Some people genuinely believe in The Cult of Busy. They love the fulfillment that comes with the constant, unending motion of busy. They love the 1,000-action-item-to-do list and they love hovering around other people, desperate to take on yet more responsibilities that aren’t really their own. They are True Believers in The Cult of Busy.

The rest of us, if we’re honest about it, we don’t really want to worship Busy. Busy’s not a good fit for us. We like the image of being busy, maybe, because somhow busy has become synonymous with important.

But busy doen’t really make us feel important, it makes us feel exhausted, overburdened, overwhelmed or trapped. We put our head down and put our hands together and pray that if we just work hard enough and smart enough for a little longer, one day we won’t feel busy anymore. Busy feels synonymous with flailing.

Joining the Productivity Priesthood

What the rest of us want is to join the Productivity Priesthood. The Productivity Priesthood is far too engaged in activities that truly matter to winger on and on about how busy they are. They handle the responsibilities in their daily lives but manage to keep focus on those things that matter most to them. On the rare occasion that a member of the Productivity Priesthood mentions being busy, they say it with a smile, with contentment.

You cannot work your way out of The Cult of Busy, it’s simply not possible. You can only prioritize your way out, and sometimes that’s harder because it means saying no. “I’m not able to do that right now,” can be a very uncomfortable phrase for people raised up in The Cult of Busy. It can feel just like, “I’m not good enough,” or “I can’t handle my shit.”

It’s wonderful to have a full, varied, diverse life, but somewhere along the line being perpetually overwhelmed has became some sort of badge of honor. Well, I’m-Always-Just-So-Busy is a stupid God to bow down to, and a stupid thing to seek praise for. Saying No to the trivial is the only way to say Yes to the most important.

I’m making the commitment to break from The Busy Cult right now. If I find myself saying, “Well, I’ve just been so busy!” in a way that betrays poor time management or prioritization on my part, or – far worse – some sort of call for sympathy because I’m living the life I’ve asked for, I’m going to ask myself why I feel ensnared by Busy.

  • If the answer is an activity I’ve committed to but don’t enjoy, I’m going to graciously back out.
  • If the answer is a distraction that has kept me from prioritizing the essential, I’m going to cut back on the distraction (I’m talking to you, email and Facebook).
  • If the answer is an activity I love, I will work to streamline how I engage in that activity.
  • If the answer is the frustration from the unending demands of raising a family, I’m going to remind myself what the whole point of this slow-ish lifestyle is, anyway.
  • If I am trapped by my own habitual vocabulary, I’m going to focus on changing how I think by changing the language I think in. When I am truly engaged in work I love – even if there is an awful lot of it – I am going to describe my life as full, and I am going to speak with gratitude for my full life, and the true luxury that I have this particular full life that I love so much.

That’s it, I’m done. I’m breaking away from the Cult of Busy. I’m making a run for it, and you are welcome to run with me. Have you become inadvertently trapped in The Cult of Busy? What can you do – and what are you going to do – to get out?


  1. marci says

    I retired in November, partially to help babysit Grandkids, but because work was stressing my life in non-healthy ways. The first thing I did was “give myself” a two month Total-Non-Guilt adjustment period, thru the Holidays and First of the Year…. Guilt-free, no pressure, no schedule…. AHHH!!! “THIS is living!” I thought! This is how life should be – doing what is important to me, but on my own time in my own way without worrying about how it looked to others.

    The Two Month Guilt Free adjustment period was so liberating, I have continued it indefinitely! It’s not about how others look at my life, it is how I take the time to do what my own personal priorities are, and my time for giving back in my own way. Liberating! Happy, content, and a full good Life!

    I enjoyed this post… I hope more folks can “get it” while they are still young !

  2. ShellsBells says

    Hear here!

    I have been thinking a lot of “un-busy-ing” lately. Mostly because I find that while I am always super “busy” and running running running I don’t seem to be doing any of the things I want to do. I am not taking the classes in pottery that I have been saying I will take for at least two years. I am not knitting the airy shawl from the beautiful brown wool with the gold flecks in it that I just know is going to look AH-mazing with my favorite dress I never wear because “it really needs a shawl”. I am not taking a yoga class three times a week like I promised myself I would.

    NO MORE!

    My dedication to escaping The Cult of Busy is to redirect my busy to things I want to be busy at. Knitting, reading, hiking, yoga, gardening, volunteering, etc.

  3. Saskia says

    I love. love this post, Erica! Last month, when my dad and I were talking about the changes in my life over the last couple of years (i.e. leaving teaching to focus on my own kids, home & garden) I realized suddenly that I hadn’t used any of that Busy language in many, many months. Now I look back on the frantically busy years, remembering all the busy-talk I used, and I can say it feels so much better today to be “full” and fulfilled doing things that are truly important to me.

  4. says

    When I am completely honest, my “busy-ness” is basically the frantic activity that follows a period of procrastination. Here I am online in the middle of the day while my dear husband is building me a brooder for the incoming broiler chicks. I DID come into the house to deposit the gallons of frozen milk and ground beef and beef liver into the sink for an afternoon defrost. Then, I thought, “How AM I going to use this beef liver, anyway?” Two innocent Google searches and then it’s over to facebook. My feed tells me you posted this new content, so here I am reading it. Then I felt the need to confess to the world that my “busy-ness” is usually the result of my lack of focus and dilligence and my all-to-often-prioritization of what _I_ want to do at any one moment. Not what needs to be done. Not what should be done. Just “what I want to do right now.” I’m going to get busy on lunch.

    • Catherine says

      I so understand your “distracted-ness” and having a son who has been diagnosed with ADD, I find myself realizing I have the same issues. I call it the “pretty, shiney thing” syndrome. You know, we all do it … the time when you start to do one thing and see something that distracts you from the function you are supposed to be performing, the Ooooo … what’s that? and off you go to investigate moment? It is a constant battle for me and the ONLY thing that keeps me on course is a list … in hand … at ALL times. It is a battle between focusing and distraction at all times and distraction seems to win too many of those times. The problem seems to be that everywhere I look there is something that needs to be done, every day, every hour, all the time and the “needs to be done” are NOT my favorite things so I try to sqeeze them in between the “want to get done” items but often it is the “needs” that win out leaving me frustrated that the “want’s” are yet again getting shoved to one side.

      I will strive to make my mind think in the terms of “full” rather than “busy” which in turn will (with luck) change my mentality to a calmer state allowing me to focus better and not feel so rushed all the time. Yes, full … I like that term much better than busy … I think I will make it my new motto. Go away ADD, my life is too “full” to have you bothering me! Now off to do my homework of a 10 minute presentation due next week that I am 5 weeks behind on, set up income and expence reports and balance sheets for my egg sales and beekeeping equipment, finish up the laundry (at least 6 more loads) from when I was sick all last week, empty the dishwasher and re-load, do the bills, clean the bathrooms, vacuum, pick up all the toys strewn thoughout the living room while I was at a meeting last evening … oh and did I mention planting 300 bulbs that were suppose to be planted last fall and are now sprouting in their bags or shriveling up?

      Full … yes, my life is full.

  5. says

    Yep, that was me last year and after getting ice cold water dumped on me in the form of poor garden harvest numbers I decided to start saying no. And so far I have and I’ve been much happier for it.

  6. says

    Amen! I am definitely guilty of buying into the cult of busy and trying to wean myself off of it has been a challenge. Productivity and prioritizing is a much better way to go. Thank you!

  7. says

    This week feels extra busy to me, but I can see now that I’m just distracted by changes in my routine…a husband who is home from work and who has been replacing the back door in our kitchen, interrupting the usual flow of my work.

    I also admit that I sometimes use “busy” as a way to not deal with people. “Sorry I haven’t called because I was too busy” often means I just didn’t want to call. “No, I’m too busy to get away this week” usually means that I just don’t want to see that person. That’s not to say that I am not truly keeping myself occupied, but I’m often not as busy as I lead others to believe.

    I like ShellsBells idea to redirect my busy-ness to things that I enjoy and not just what I need to be doing.

  8. lisa says

    The Emperor is buck naked.

    On my cell phone, I turned my ringer down, shut the background data off. Aaaahhhhh…. just like 2004, when I determined who and what took my attention, and when and where that happened. MY terms. I do not need to justify or explain why I didn’t immediately answer the phone or respond to an email. I’m not the president. None of us are. Once I made that distinction (that my phone alerting me to a new email from Alaska Airlines or a dumb forwarded joke about Obama does NOT make me busy or productive or useful or important), life has been nice and un-urgent. Sweeeeet.

    Being ‘busy’ isn’t an excuse or a social badge of honor or a cross to bear. The truth is very simple and plain: we’re all doing what we want to do, diverting time and effort from things we don’t want to the things we do want. The real question to ask yourself is: Do you REALLY want to spend time having a mani-pedi day with a girlfriend and skip visiting grandma? Learn to foxtrot or catch up on American Idol? Birdwatch or read Moby Dick? Put in overtime for a promotion or teach your kids to wash their hands after the bathroom? “Productive” people just want different things- they don’t care about American Idol, but they do care about sewing sequins onto a Hallowe’en costume, or making muffins while I’m playing Skyrim, or starting a viral video about a villain in Africa.

  9. says

    Brilliant advice – I so need to put this into practice. I make a few steps of progress but it’s oh so easy to slip back into those old ways. Will try harder! Thanks for the checklist : )

  10. says

    Such a good post. I am not currently trapped in the cult of busy, but I was once. It was so stressful, I was one of those people who couldn’t say no. Now I do. Whenever I feel the pull of those things that used to give me such a busy life, trying to draw me back with some of its benefits, I try to remember what I love about my life the way it is now.

  11. Arrowleaf says

    Great post! In a former life as a back-country caretaker in the wilds of Idaho, I learned to prioritize exceptionally well out of necessity. There were so many pressing, timely tasks and without a full source of nighttime electricity I honestly learned to “make hay while the sun shines.” And I did actually make hay….Nowadays in the front-country after prioritizing my daily to-do list, I will time myself. Sounds silly, but twenty minutes to load the wood bin, twenty minutes to pick up the house, and twenty minutes to check email makes a fast hour. For me, it helps differentiate between important needs and those that can truly wait. Wendell Berry speaks eloquently, and often, about the definition of work and how it is represented in modern life. The semantics behind the word and the actual meaning don’t often jive. We tend to refer to the perceived drudgery of work in conjunction with being busy, which is more a case of dull vernacular. Berry’s perspective has greatly shaped mine, and I appreciate that I discovered his writing while an impressionable youth. Thanks for the applicable and re-affirming article- my 20 minutes on the internet are up!

  12. Nancy R says

    I can’t tell you how much I love this post. Sometimes when I’m doing what I want to do, and not “busy enough” I feel guilty. Guilty but happy. The next time I start to utter the words, “I’ve been too busy to ‘fill in the blank'” or just plain “I’m so busy”, I’m going to stop, take a step back, and ask myself why this is. Most times, the answer is going to be that I let myself get de-railed by some form of guilt. I know what it is I want to do, and I know how I want to live. That’s the most important thing to me. I will remember your post for a very long time. Thank you.

  13. says

    A timely post. I’m blushing right now since just this evening I sent off a couple of emails saying how busy I’ve been. Not busy in the sense of being a young mother, harassed from dawn till dusk trying to keep everything in balance and everyone happy. Been there, done that, have my badges to prove it. No, now I’m a busy Emptynester, except the nest filled up with puppies. Now, my days are taken up with a never-ending cycle of cleaning up after five dogs that are very much here to stay for at least the next 10 or several more years. But, I promise you I’ll not say I’m busy ever again. It is tiresome, I agree. And it does get boring! Everyone’s doing it. It’s not new. You’re so very RIGHT! Great post. Lots to ponder.

  14. says

    I’ve been using Mozilla’s LeechBlock to keep me off of Facebook, so I can GET busy (as in clean the house, play with the kids, start seeds)! And it’s helped. I couldn’t break free from its evil clutches before. Now, I remember that it’s much less interesting than life.

  15. says

    I wrote a post about this exact thing last fall, where I declared myself “Not Busy: Full!” ( I was listening to myself talk, and realized some important things. I was busy doing things that I loved, and was therefore incredibly blessed and shouldn’t whine; I felt it was really important that others look at food production, etc as DOABLE things, and if I was always groaning about being busy, others would never want to do what I’m doing; and last, I was using “busy-ness” as a socially acceptable way to say no, without actually just being honest about it.

    These months later, I find I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t complain about being busy, and I guard that balance ferociously! It’s also helpful that I’ve finally clued into the cycles of busy-ness in my life. When I can anticipate those cycles, I don’t resent the busy times, and thus don’t complain so much. I hope!

  16. says

    I think I’ve been guilty of this lately, but mostly because I need to create more structure in my life. I’m blessed to have a good paying job that I can do from home and be here with my daughter. However, work, parenting, gardening, cleaning, and cooking on your own schedule can seem a little overwhelming if you’re flying by the seat of your pants. I find to-do lists help, but I’ m really trying to set daily time deadlines, and it’s helping.

  17. Miss L says

    I love this post and I will be sharing this post.

    How ironic though, speaking of being busy, someone was to busy to spell check this post.
    “Joining the Productivity Priethood”, shouldn’t that say Priesthood?

  18. Jennifer J. says

    After reading Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne a few years ago, I too have been hyper aware of the Cult of Busy! I try not to ever say I am busy, because I choose to never be too busy, and I sure do have some full days, BUT standing around the bus stop with all the Busy Parents can make me feel pretty guilty at times for not Doing More. Or guilty for not making my kids do more. Thanks for the affirmation that I’m not alone.

  19. says

    I loved reading this! I too use the words full versus busy, however admittedly from time to time, the word busy has crept in simply because we have been so accustomed to using it that it is second nature and definitely takes a conscious effort to change it. I love your “hold nothing back” approach! You have absolutely hit the nail on the head. I work with moms to help to them to slow down, and get back in touch with who they are. All this business of busyness has lead to a society of people having no idea who they are! I know I certainly was guilty of that, but I have spent many years unlearning and releasing what didn’t really belong to me. So, I am with you on your quest to let go of the busy!

  20. says

    Well said! I also use the word “full” versus “busy” however admittedly have still fallen prey to using the word busy at times due to the fact that it is a word we have become so accustomed to using that we often times don’t even think twice about it…it’s just the way it is. BUT I believe awareness is the key, and once we start paying attention to the words we use we can change the habits we have created. I work with moms to help them to slow down. Busyness has created a society of people who don’t know who they are because we’ve been too busy to allow ourselves the time. And busyness is also the culprit we use to avoid having to look deeper…we use it to fill the void. Well, it’s time to stop! Clearly the way things have been going is not working, so its time to do something different, and it starts by re-evaluating values and priorities. Ok, I’m going to stop here, because I really could get going on this topic! lol …a little passionate about it!!!

  21. says

    This post kinda irked me a bit. Because I am someone who says ‘I am busy’. I don’t say it to complain, to feel more important or worse off than anyone else, or for attention. If someone asks me, “How’s things?” I might reply, “Pretty busy at the moment, with lots going on in the garden” or “It’s the busy season” or “This has been a busy week, but things are settling down now”. Even if I am busy, I don’t start every conversation with it, or drone on about how much I have to do. Just like I don’t always say I’m tired. I know a lot of people don’t really care, but many people I know, actually do care. I care about them, too, and listen when they tell me why they are busy or whatever!

    I used to be overwhelmed by h0w busy I felt, and got burnt out from doing too much. I learnt my lesson in not taking on too much, of taking things one (OK, maybe two or three) steps at a time. We’ve never overscheduled the kids. I only work part-time, and we make sacrifices/ work hard to be able to do that. We have just the right amount of social and community engagements. We are grateful for the opportunities we have and want to make the most of this blessed life we have. Yes, some times are more stressful than others, everything seems to happen at once… life happens like that. So, I am not going to stop saying ‘I’m busy’, if I am. Busy doesn’t have to mean something bad! Yes, full or productive are the types of busy that I (mostly) am. I guess maybe I am lucky that when reading this post, I have already been through my burn-out phase and learnt my lesson.

  22. says

    Been meaning to get over here with a comment. I loved this post. One of my top favorites of yours. I think Dixies own struggles made it hard to see past the snarky tone. I can understand that, but I loved the snarky tone! Because you were talking to yourself above all, and very tongue in cheek, it makes the snark just a riotous way of laughing at ourselves, and kicking ourselves in the butt at the same time.
    I too am guilty of the Too Busy syndrome, because I consistently bite off more than I could possibly chew. I often think about the irony of us who aim for a simple life by doing ever more stuff. It is one hella tough balancing point.

    • says

      Thanks CJ. I liked this post too. :) It doesn’t have to resonate with everyone. Those of us for whom it is appropriate will recognize ourselves and – I hope – be able to laugh, as you say.

  23. says

    I am working myself to the bone to make sure that I am not too busy this summer. I know that makes no damn sense but I also realize I cannot keep up this pace and have a large list of things I will not be happy until I complete. I’m at least not taking any new things on. :p

  24. says

    I’m in!! Thanks for this, beautifully written. I cringe whenever I hear the word “busy” coming out of my mouth, and you capture the pull of it so well. It is a cult and I’m putting down my Kool-Aid cup right now. Another radical step — get 8 hours of sleep a night. ;-)

  25. says

    I decided to wrap up the commitments I had made and to take a one year sabbatical from all activities–committees, leadership positions, special groups, etc. That was four years ago. I’ll never go back.
    I now evaluate each option and decide if I want to be a part of this and what I am willing to give up to be a part of it. If I am unsure, I usually say I will talk to my husband and get back to the person. He has a lot of wisdom and it keeps me from just automatically saying yes, or be guilted into doing something. After spending most of my life doing EVERYTHING, it is hard to not just go on auto-pilot. BUT it is SO worth it!


  1. […] and still getting there on time. But at what cost? I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the cult of Busy, about why I consistently pack so much into each of my days. Brushing teeth, getting mail, paying […]

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