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Busy is the New Black

Know what would be so refreshing? To ask a friend how he or she is and hear the response “Busy!”   LOL J/K.  That’s all anyone EVER says these days. To be fair, sometimes people mix it up with a “Crazy!” or toss in an additional qualifier – “Good! Busy!” – but the point is the same, and aren’t we all over it? I mean, who has time for another volley of banter about how there aren’t enough hours in the day?

As Elizabeth Bernstein pointed a couple of years ago in the Wall Street Journal, discussing how busy we are has become one of the most common forms of bragging, and it’s true – there is something inherently competitive about it, as people seem to derive self-worth from the (self-described) frenetic nature of their lives. I’m often tempted to just throw up my hands in the middle of one of those passive-aggressive throw-downs (“ooh, your nanny is sick AND you’re in the middle of a move? Well my husband is leaving for a TWO WEEK work trip and I have a full-time job!”) and surrender – “I give up! You win! You’re the champion of being busy!”

Let me be clear that I’m certainly not above this all, as I get sucked into competition pretty easily. It never makes me feel great, though…despite the fact that in my mind I’m usually the obvious winner. . Therefore, when I feel my pulse quickening with the thrill of the sport, I try to remind myself that everyone’s busy. Married or not married, working or not working, kids or no kids. Because what does being “busy” even mean? Having a three-dimensional life full of multiple relationships, obligations and activities?  Living in a fast-paced urban environment in an industrialized society? Please. We’re all in the same boat. Saying you’re busy is like saying you’re tired, in that I dare you to find someone who isn’t.

Beyond all this, the busiest bees typically miss the fact that having a full life is not the same as not having any time in the day to do things.  OK, fine, for some people it is, but in my experience the people who are Actually That Busy don’t talk about how busy they are – either because they’re not around at all, or because they have nothing to prove.

As Laura Vanderkam wrote last year in a New York Times piece titled “The Busy Person’s Lies,” careful study of time makes clear that there is more of it in each day than The Busys acknowledge. How we spend it, though, depends on how and what we prioritize.  And those priorities can differ vastly among even the closest friends and the most parallel lives.

Another related way to look at it: when someone apologizes for missing something because things are “so crazy,” it generally translates to “I didn’t want to do it.” It’s not unlike the revelatory ’90s concept of “he’s just not that into you.”  (E.g., why hasn’t he made dinner plans with you since your great first date? Because he would rather do other things than have dinner with you.) When someone doesn’t do something – whether it’s write you back, come to the dinner, or join your book club – it’s usually because he or she wanted to do something else more. I am 100% OK with that – as we all should be, especially given the limited nature of free time.

Perhaps we would all feel our lives were less “crazy” – or at the very least would feel a diminished need to constantly proclaim it – if we were more honest about our individual priorities, and acknowledged that they may not align with others’.  Let’s all admit to ourselves that each day is a series of choices. (Except, of course, when things aren’t a choice – which they absolutely sometimes are not.) Most people don’t have time to do all the things in a day or week that they want to do, so they make necessary decisions according to the value to their priorities. In owning up to the fact that for the most part we are leading deliberate lives, let’s also all pledge to stop saying things like “I have no time to respond to email,” or “who has time to work out?”

You do have time, you just want to spend it doing something else. (Like watching Bravo, which is what I’m doing 99% of the time I’m not responding to emails.) That’s OK! No one’s mad at you for that!  Just stop telling us how busy you are. We know. We are too..



Alice Leiter is a recovering lawyer living in Washington, D.C. with her husband and four children. Her hobbies include making fun of her family on Instagram, watching Bravo, and worrying that people are mad at her. She hates when grown women call her “Mama.” Reach her at alice@aliceleiter.com.