Busy Isn’t Better

Americans have an obsession with getting stuff done.  We like to blitz through our schedules, check items off our to-do list, and enjoy the “high” that comes with such accomplishment.  I am a grade-A list-maker, checkbox-checker, and schedule-arranger.  But yall, even I have to admit that this culture of chronic busyness doesn’t seem to help us do much of anything.  We seem to have ambition in spades, but it’s not working in our favor.  As Merriam-Webster puts it, ambition is “an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; the desire to reach a particular end.” Or, in my less-technical estimation, ambition is an insatiable desire to reach the best and fullest potential.  Ambition is a good thing in and of itself, but without direction is has led too many of us into an endless loop of empty busyness. We have come to associate busyness with hard work, and hard work with ambition, and too often we mistake our own busyness for proof of our ambition without realizing that we have no achievements to show for all our wearying efforts.  In other words, we have a sick compulsion to make ourselves miserable while getting nothing done.

dude, i'm busy

I feel ya, bro. I feel ya.

On top of that, we’re afraid to not be busy.  As warped as it is, busyness has become something that gives us a sense of purpose and dignity.  To be busy is to have worth.  Perhaps it is a remnant of our Puritan heritage, but we see busyness as a sign of valor- “Look at how busy he is! He hardly has time to rest before he gets up and does it all again tomorrow! Clearly, he’s a hard worker…and that means he must also be ambitious, have good morals, and make regular donations to the SPCA.”  Whether borne of a desire for purpose or the fear of committing such a shameful atrocity as taking a day off, we choose to put all of our time and efforts to toiling away at the unending lists of obligations, appointments, projects, deadlines, and meetings that we have made for ourselves.


A sample page from my planner during my last semester of college. It was busy (to say the least) and I was miserable. Oh, and I’m still unemployed.

But why? Why?

Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we tie our sense of purpose to arbitrary items on a calendar?

Maybe it’s that by keeping our schedules overflowing, we convince ourselves that our lives are full.  But really, how many of us truly need to be as busy as we are? In my experience, chronic busyness is a cover-up for a lack of purpose.  The busier I keep myself, the less time I have to acknowledge that I don’t actually know where I’m going or what I’m doing.  At the same time, the more I keep myself busy with urgent or engaging- but ultimately, not edifying, enriching, or productive– tasks, the less I am able to accomplish.  But at least I’m staying busy, right?

There is no doubt that we were made to work, and we were made to work hard.  Each individual has a unique set of talents they should cultivate and parlay into something meaningful and rewarding, and to pursue that endeavor and seek to live with purpose will necessitate a lifetime of work.  But work is not meant to be an endless cycle of tedious and trifling tasks that fill our time but not our hearts.  Seeing blank space in my planner should not send me into a panic, and the fact that it does is proof that my priority is on maintaining momentum rather than making meaningful achievements.   And clearly, my priorities need to change.

There is only a finite amount of time each of us is allotted on this side of eternity.  The busier we keep ourselves, the less work we really get done, so let’s each use the time we have to work hard at the things that matter.

We were made to work…not to be busy.


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