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Why Being Busy Is Overrated: 4 Toxic Excuses

Greg de la Cruz works at NCR Corp's R&D center in the Philippines. He is interested in economic history and current world financial affairs.

Are you in a state of chronic busyness? Do you find yourself making these four excuses when someone asks you to slow down? Read on to learn more about the glorification of being busy and why it needs to change.

Are you in a state of chronic busyness? Do you find yourself making these four excuses when someone asks you to slow down? Read on to learn more about the glorification of being busy and why it needs to change.

Toxic Busyness

When I was a young child, I didn’t have a full understanding of what adults did with their time—but I was envious of their busyness. My dad would hop from one phone call to another at his government office desk while signing papers brought by orderlies during and after those calls. And if he wasn’t at his desk, he was behind closed doors talking with some important people.

At night, in his home office, he would shuffle clients in and out of his receiving area—sometimes giving them what they needed in legal matters and sometimes referring them to my uncle, who had his own practice.

Importance Doesn't Equal Busyness

As a pre-teen, all this hustle-and-bustle was foundational exposure for me. It was an implied message coming from my father that if you’re going to be somebody important, you’re going to be very busy. And I suppose the inverse of this implied message was true.

My dad passed away during my formative years, and I soon looked to my mom as a role model. Unfortunately for me, that foundational knowledge of keeping busy would further be reinforced through no fault of her own. Becoming a single mother and supporting me on her own, she too got very busy, and I got to see her in action at her office, where she barely took any breaks, let alone get up from her desk if it wasn’t to print this, submit that, sign those.

My Toxic Busyness

I’ve been around chronic busyness for most of my life and experienced it myself when I took on a supervisor position while moonlighting as a full-time law student. And it wasn’t pretty. Five hours of sleep was a luxury. A weekend with no predetermined agenda was rarer than Ben Simmons hitting a live-game three-pointer.

But should I even be surprised at myself for taking on way too much than my body could handle? Chronic busyness was what I knew to be true, and society only kept reinforcing the idea that doing so many things was the one key to success. Mamba mentality. Hustle culture. Grind it out until you drop.

It took me a couple of years away from that old job and some semesters off from law school for me to realize that our society has put too much value and encouragement on a person who’s willing to sacrifice so much of his waking hours devoted to working towards some pursuit.

But before we get any further, it’s important to look at ourselves first and our current state—are you suffering from chronic busyness?

What Is Chronic Busyness?

Chronic busyness, as described by Lisa Quast in a Forbes article, is an addiction to being busy that has played out in the decreased number of vacation days taken by workers. She posed six self-assessment questions to assess whether or not a person suffers from chronic busyness.

Chronic Busyness Quiz

  1. How would you describe your workdays? Are they hectic, chaotic, and consumed in activities?
  2. How does being busy make you feel? Do you relish the excitement of jumping from one task to another throughout the day?
  3. How many vacation days do you take each year? Do you usually take fewer than what’s allowed or skip vacation time entirely?
  4. What activities do you normally do when you are not at work? Is your downtime filled with activities or more work? Is it rare for you to take time to sit down, relax and read for leisure?
  5. Are your friends and family weary of hearing how busy you are? Do you post many of your activities on social media? Have you ever seen someone roll their eyes when you talk about how busy you are?
  6. What is your response when someone asks, “How are you?” Do you usually say, “I’m busy!”?

If you answered each italicized follow-up question in the affirmative, it is quite likely that you suffer from chronic busyness. And I echo a hundred percent of Lisa’s assertion that, as a society, we need to stop glorifying being busy. Being busy shouldn’t be some status symbol or held as a badge of honor. Furthermore, it should be a warning sign, a glaring symptom that a person’s lifestyle needs to change.

It needs to change unless that person is willing to pay the price of chronic busyness and the toll it takes on the human mind and body.

Effects of Chronic Busyness

  • elevated stress hormones,
  • anxiety,
  • depression,
  • heart disease,
  • sleep problems,
  • and memory impairment.

How Today's Society Glorifies Being Busy

Sponsored ads on YouTube and social media sites will instantly tell you that there is a market for people who want to introduce ‘more busyness’ into their lives. Life and career coaches will hype you with a snippet of their live interview of how they went from commoner to millionaire by working every single day and by being focused on their dreams. Goal-setting. Target-hitting. Chest-thumping.

And then you have the established ones—the Elon Musks, the Kevin O’Learys, and the Mark Cubans of the world—their statements were simply cut out by some marketing editor to help inspire ordinary viewers like us. Maybe then, we’ll finally get off that sweaty couch or last night’s bed. Maybe then we’ll put on some pants and perform oral hygiene.

Maybe at the end of the day, we’ll subscribe to a masterclass that drains dollars from our savings account every month, a masterclass on “Getting things done” or “Mastering motivation"—or one conducted by the person who paid for all those video ads.

Our society glorifies being busy, and capitalism knows it. Being busy is romanticized in Hollywood movies—an example that comes to mind is The Devil Wears Prada, wherein Andy, played by Anne Hathaway, tries to keep up with the demands of her devilish boss Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep.

On the small screen, a show like Suits showcases corporate work life and celebrates Louis Litt, a high-ranking firm lawyer (eventually becoming a senior partner). She puts in the most client-billable hours, and is the slave-master to the “bullpen” of associates; in this environment, putting in ordinary working hours is not only shameful but a quick cause for getting fired.

Whether it’s real-life or on-screen, the assumption (or theory) that being busy is good is something that keeps getting hammered through our thick skulls. To elaborate further, here are four toxic excuses made by so-called 'very busy people' when we ask them to slow down or take it easy.

4 Toxic Excuses for Being Busy

We've all heard them—and maybe we've even used them ourselves. But these justifications for chronic busyness might be commonplace, but that doesn't mean they aren't toxic.

1. "Things would fall apart without me."

We’ve all heard this excuse from someone who just won’t take a day off. Or from a person who becomes submerged under all that unnecessary guilt for not doing anything productive while being away from work. The excuse that you are irreplaceable at work is toxic not just for the person making the excuse but to the people around that person who have to deal with the consequences.

First of all, someone who says that he or she is irreplaceable at work is feeding you a lie. There’s no such thing as an irreplaceable worker. If you suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth and you held such an important position at your company, without a doubt, your company would encounter a tough time.

But that period of time won’t be too long. The transition period might be painful, but organizations go through employee replacements all the time. Always remember: even the President of any country has a transition plan—a clause in most constitutions that provides step-by-step instructions on how the replacement President (usually the Vice President) will take the former’s place.

Yes, things would probably fall apart without you or while you’re out—but it’s something that your employer has a contingency for. If given the choice, whether it’s your work or your well-being that falls apart, wouldn’t the former be the easy choice? For some, especially those who make this toxic excuse, that choice isn’t very obvious.

2. "Be very busy now to live a carefree life later."

You’ve probably listened to the stories online if you haven’t seen it in person—of highly successful people grinding it out when they were younger, barely taking any days off in a year—and are now living the dream life. Their story is perhaps a variant of the American dream.

The reason why the ‘be busy now so you can be free later’ excuse is toxic is that it glorifies the idea of living like a slave at the beginning of your life so that you might one day become the slave master.

This is textbook hustle culture BS. Do you really need to fill up your Saturday schedule with additional work when the salary you earned for the workweek is enough to live comfortably? I don’t blame people who don’t have a choice—people who live at or on the edge of poverty, who need all that extra work just to feed a family. The poverty might also show you that there’s immense income inequality just because there’s also a huge disparity in working hours.

But for people who add more work just for the sake of adding more work. Or because I can. Or because I want to live like a king someday. This is where it gets toxic. What exactly are you driving towards? So you can buy the next new iPhone? So you can finally afford a car? So you might one day belong to the Elon Musks, the Kevin O’Learys, and the Mark Cubans of the world?

3. "I do so much because I'm setting myself up for future success.

This toxic excuse might sound similar to excuse number two, but there is a subtle difference here. In this case, these are people who strongly believe that there is a proportional relationship between busyness and importance. The busier they are, the more privileged they become. It’s a little like my personal example at the beginning of this article, but I don’t think my parents ever wanted to be the most important people in the world.

Picture a junior associate rising up the ranks to become a junior partner, and then a senior partner, and one day maybe become a named partner. The junior associate’s orientation is that the more hours I put in, the more money the law firm brings in. And the more money I help bring in, the bigger my chances of climbing up the ladder—and fast!

This is where all that addiction to more work spirals. The inflection point will eventually arrive—to surrender to a ‘normal’ life where the hours aren’t so bad but the pay is so-so, or to follow the standard trajectory which is selling your soul to your job and it showering you with ‘success’ and money.

This excuse or mindset is very toxic because it reinforces the idea that great things are only the result of great effort. Always remember that luck and opportunity each play a big role in whether you become successful or not.

There are some people who don’t believe in destiny or God’s will—and these are usually the people who believe that the more work they put in, the better the outcome. Not that the latter phrase is untrue because more effort usually increases your chances of success. But to attribute your success solely to your own effort—that’s where the wrongness starts.

4. "I'll regret that I didn't put in the work and time when I had the chance."

The ones who say this toxic excuse are likely the easiest prey for all those masterclass ads on YouTube. They’re always anxious that if they don’t do something now—one day, they’ll wake up and realize that their life has passed them by.

The fear of missing out (FOMO) is a fear that capitalism has taken advantage of very effectively. And it’s not just ordinary consumers that fall prey to FOMO—even execs at multinational corporations and high-ranking government officials latch on to FOMO. As a result, they make rash, unwise decisions that negatively impact their organizations.

What Are You Sacrificing?

While it’s important to make the most out of your waking days, are you sure that keeping busy is the way to do it? You might not have the tools or skills now, and so you invest time and effort in gaining those skills—and that’s probably very noble of you. But be acutely aware of the tradeoffs. What are you sacrificing when you choose to do the things you ‘need’ to do because you don’t want to have regrets later in life?

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Greg de la Cruz