Take the Busy out of Business

By Sarah Romney

“How was work today?” “Busy.” “How was your week?” “Busy.” “How is life?” “Busy.”

Can you remember a time when you were not “busy”? Was it back when you were 11 years old? If it was more recent than that, did it feel so strange to have free time that you did not know what to do with yourself?

There is a culture today of busyness. We want to be viewed as busy because it is a status symbol that makes us feel valuable. Unfortunately, this mindset is harmful to our work relationships, career growth, and personal well-being. The problem, however, may not lie in the amount of work we have but in our perception of being busy. By changing the words we use, we can adjust our mindset, which can ultimately improve our work experience. 

Trends in time 

Americans have more free time than ever before. Since 2007, time spent at work and other volunteer activities has decreased, while time spent sleeping and participating in leisure activities has increased, as published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). See Figure 1.F

According to the survey, the amount of time Americans spend sleeping on average increased from 8.67 hours to 8.80 hours per day. Time spent participating in leisure and sports activities increased from 5.11 to 5.24 hours per day on average. On the contrary, average time spent working decreased from 5.26 to 5.21 hours per day. Time spent on telephone calls and email decreased from 0.19 to 0.16 hours per day.1

While Americans spend less time working and have more minutes at their discretion, they don’t feel like they have more time. In a nation-wide poll, nearly half of Americans reported feeling like they do not have enough time to do what they want to do. And two-thirds reported often or always feeling rushed.2 So, the problem is not that we have more work to do but that our free time does not feel so free. 

Influences on perception

If we aren’t working more than before, then why do we feel busier? The problem starts with the pressure from society to load our extra time with productive tasks. There is an expectation to optimize our time not only at work, but also in other areas of our lives. We feel like if we are doing something at all times, we are more productive and more valuable. On the other hand, when we don’t use every second productively, we feel inadequate and ashamed.3

This feeling of obligation leads to the second part of the problem. Not only do we feel pressured by others to use all of our time, we convince ourselves that we are too busy when we say how busy we are. In their book, Words Can Change Your Brain, Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman teach how the words people use alter the structure of their brains and impact the way that they think about things.4 Just saying “I’m busy” makes one feel busier. 

The problems with feeling busy

Whether or not you have a full schedule, the feeling of busyness can have detrimental effects at work:

  1. It messes with your mind. Feeling overly busy affects your mental ability. It can cause you to feel anxious, stressed frustrated, angry, or inadequate.5 In this kind of a mental state, it is extremely difficult to function well on the job. 
  2. It harms your health. In addition to hampering your mental ability, being too busy can lead to physical health symptoms including restlessness, headaches, and fatigue which will likewise hinder work performance.6
  3. It keeps you out of reach. Not only does saying “I’m busy” affect your perception of yourself, it also impacts how others perceive you. Perhaps your manager thinks you would be a great person to take on a new assignment, but he knows just how busy you said you are. So, he holds back.
  4. It inhibits creativity. People come up with the best ideas in their free time. Google’s 20% rule (the informal rule that engineers at Google should spend 20% of their time working on whatever they want) has led to innovative ideas such as the Chromebook laptop, created by Caesar Sengupta and his team.7 If Sengupta felt like he was too busy to spend some extra minutes thinking creatively, he may not have come up with such a successful project.

5. It hinders relationship-building. Being too busy negatively impacts your ability to form relationships at work for multiple reasons. First, if you come across as busy to others, your colleagues will see you as unapproachable, detached, and uninterested.8 Furthermore, forming relationships takes time. If you are under the impression that you don’t have enough time, you likely won’t spend it asking your coworker how her daughter’s violin performance went or whether his mother is out of the hospital. 

6. It wrecks work-life balance. For the same reasons you might struggle to form relationships with your colleagues, you may have a hard time strengthening relationships with your family and spending enough time at home. Your ten-year-old son may feel hesitant to ask you for help with his math homework because he knows just how busy you are. 

Being busy at work cannot be completely avoided and can be a good thing insomuch as it leads to productivity. Just be careful not to confuse being busy with feeling busy. It is possible to have a full day of tasks and meetings and still not feel too busy. If you can change your mindset, you can avoid these negative effects.

Changing your mindset

Based on the research that was discussed, there are a few things that can help us adjust our perception. First, we should avoid the misconception that we need to fill every minute of the day with a productive task if we want to have worth. This may be how we view our value, but it is not how others see us. We perceive a pressure that is not there.9 Let us make the conscious effort to recognize this fallacy and ignore the thought that we need to be doing more.

Then, instead of trying to always fill our free time with something productive, we can spend our free time relaxing and doing the things that we enjoy. For those who feel that they truly don’t have any free time, prioritizing what is most essential and cutting out what is not important may be required.

Finally, we should stop saying that we are busy, both to ourselves and to others. The more we say it, the more we believe it, and the negative side-effects of busyness start kicking in. Instead, we can say optimistic things like, “I have time for what is most important” and “I can prioritize my time how I want to.” Speaking positively like this promotes healthy cognitive functioning.10

 “Busy” is not an identity nor a character description. It is a condition of the mind. And we can change it.


  1. “American Time Use Survey (ATUS)”, Bureau of Labor Statistics, (June 2017). www.bls.gov
  2. Rudd, Melanie. “Feeling Short on Time: Trends, 

Consequences, and Possible Remedies.” Current Opinion in Psychology, 26 (April 2018): 5-10.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *