Health & Wellness

We complain about being 'too busy' — but secretly we like it

Andrew Burton / Today
Commuters make their way through Grand Central Terminal during evening rush hour on March 10 in New York City.

We are SO slammed, SO crazed, SO swamped—just so, SO BUSY. Things we are now too busy for include but are not limited to: Any workout lasting longer than 20 minutes, non-speed-reading, making regular coffee in a regular coffee pot. We update our Facebook friends about our crazy skeds in real time, and routinely start emails with an apology about the delay in reply, using our busy-ness as an excuse. 

But are we really as busy as we think we are, as we say we are? Or has the perception of being busy become a sort of modern day badge of honor?

In blogger Elisa Kim's experience, we brag about being busy because "we have nothing better to do with ourselves." During the times she really was busy, she says she was less likely to brag about it. She didn't have time to brag about it; she just dealt with it. 

"When I was an underpaid, over-worked, under-respected public school teacher, I never bragged about being busy. I just was," says Kim, who lives in San Francisco. "And I never bragged about what I was doing... I quietly wished I had my life back."

She now works as an academic writing writing coach for students, and her schedule is a little less crazy. She said, "When I 'busy brag' now, it's usually a passive-aggressive way of saying, 'Hey, can you give me some kudos for all this effort I'm putting in?"

The epidemic of "busy-ness" has become such a thing that it's even the premise of a new book, “Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time,” by journalist Brigid Schulte. In it, Schulte argues that our perception of how busy we are is actually “contaminating” the way we experience time. If we feel like we’re too busy, then we are. 

Inspired by Schulte’s book, Slate writer Hanna Rosin wrote a piece recently about “busy-bragging,” the irresistible urge to whine about your jam-packed schedule. Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who has studied time use and procrastination, says one reason we might be tempted to “busy-brag” is to prove to our friends how full and rich and wonderful our lives are. But it’s also more complex than that, he says.

“It cuts two ways: There’s bragging, and there’s sharing your pain,” Pychyl says. “And sometimes I think we do it because misery loves company.”

On Facebook, he says, people will post about how “they just got back from a trip from Africa, and they’re already packing for something else. They’re not usually telling you they have this laundry to do, or they have a floor that hasn’t been washed in weeks.”

Because the thing is, we actually really like being busy. A recent study in the journal Psychological Science found that, if left up to us, we’re more likely to be lazy or idle. But we’re actually much happier when there’s lots of activity and things going on.  

“We’re goal-oriented. Our happiness, our real happiness, is based on the pursuit of meaningful goals,” Pychyl says. “There is a feeling of life being well lived when you’re doing all the things you want to do. Now, if you need to brag about it, too – well, that’s a different thing.”