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When Did “Being Busy” Become a Good Thing?

Why drowning in responsibility has become so praiseworthy.

“How’s work? Busy?” How many times have you been asked this question by well-meaning friends and family?

If you reply, “Slow,” you’re met with a sympathetic look and encouraging words. They say, “Don’t worry. Things will pick up.” If you reply with, “I’m swamped! I can barely keep my head above water!” you’re met with cheers.

Why is being busy good? Why is it great to be drowning, but terrible to be floating about? And is there no other option?


Busy as a reflection of money

If you are busy at work, it means you are so skilled that the company continues to give you responsibility. You are valuable. And value equals money. Money is good. It means food on the table. Let’s ignore the possibility that you’re incompetent and that’s the reason you are so in-over-your-head. Instead, let’s just assume you are a rockstar. Therefore, being busy means being excellent which means a solid bank account.

If your business is slow, it means you are struggling. It means you aren’t making sales, aren’t growing, aren’t putting food on the table. It means you aren’t creating value and are therefore struggling. Ignore the possibility that you are slow because you set up your business to not require 40 hours of you each week. Instead, assume you are a failure. Therefore, slow in business means inadequacy which means societal burden.

Busy is good, slow is bad. At least as far as money is concerned.


Busy as a reassurance

Is that such a bad way to look at things though? It depends. If you’re a worried parent, hearing that your kid is busy at work may give you relief. After all, it means you raised them to be capable. And capability means they will financially thrive. It means one less thing for you to brood over.

The question itself – “Are you busy?” – is too simplistic though. It assumes too much. Both of what being busy means and the income you receive because of it. A business owner can work nonstop and still show a loss. A thoughtful employee could take it easy and have more than enough to go around. And that doesn’t even take into account competence which, as I mentioned, is a factor in how productive you are.

So, is being busy a good thing? Let’s go a little deeper. Put money aside for a moment and turn your attention towards fulfillment.


Busy as a reflection of purpose

Okinawa, Japan is a blue zone – a region of the world “where a higher than usual number of people live much longer than average.” In the book, Ikigai, by Héctor García and Francesc Miralles, the authors set out to explain what it is about this area that makes it so special. They suggest that more than anything else, it’s that the people have a strong sense of ikigai.

Ikigai is a Japanese word that roughly translates to, “the happiness of always being busy.” Though what it really means is having a purpose in your life. Something that you spend time on each day because you want to. It can be one thing or many things. It is both about fulfillment and spending your time each day cultivating that fulfillment. Not sitting idly, but intentionally spending your time on fulfilling acts.

Ikigai is about being busy with things that fill you up. And it is from that viewpoint that busyness should be judged.


Busy as an excuse

We all have friends that are terrible at texting us back. It feels like friendship neglect. We wonder if they don’t like us anymore. If they are trying to throw some distance into the relationship. And then several days later, when you finally do hear back, you receive a response like, “Sorry, I’ve been super busy with work…” That, or you get short, one-word replies. For instance:

You: “Hey! How are you doing?”

Them, five days later: “Good. Busy.”

You: “That’s great! How’s Charlie doing?”

Them, another five days later: “Good.”

Based on their responses, you assume they no longer like you. That they’re trying to end the conversation, and your relationship, as quickly as possible. That is until you see them a month later. When you’re together, they’re all smiles. They explain that they miss you so much. That work has been killing them. And they apologize for taking so long to get back to you.


Busy as a choice

There are two types of busy, then. There is busy with meaning and there is busy with circumstance. Busy with meaning is ikigai. It is filling your time with pursuits that add fulfillment to your life. So if your friend asks how you’ve been, you’d say busy but with a smile on your face. Your friend would smile right back at you. They know you’ve been busy.  The two of you have been traveling the world together for months.

Busy with circumstance is busy through lack of intention. It’s letting your job take over your life. It’s letting responsibility control your time. If a friend asks how you’ve been, you’d say busy with a scowl. Your friend would give a shrug and wonder how many of your boring work stories they were going to have to listen to before they could leave.

Which type of busy would you prefer?


Busy moving forward

Busy became a good thing when it got associated with money. The busier you are, the more money in your pocket. But there is something more valuable to strive for: purpose. A life of ikigai, of happiness through being busy, is a life of meaning. It’s one where you are swamped with good things. Not ones that give you panic attacks.

Busy is good when it means fulfillment. It’s bad when it means dread.

Further, busy is good when it’s done intentionally. It’s bad when it’s not. For instance, busy is good when it means you are spending all your time on meaningful pursuits. It’s bad when it means you are working 80-hour weeks for a job you hate.

Moving forward, be aware of how you answer the question – “How’s work?” Before you reply with “Busy,” think about what that word means for you. Are you busy with meaning or with circumstance? Are you busy because you choose to be or because you feel there is no other option? Busy can be a good thing, but only if you are deliberate about it.

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