The Battle to Avoid These Two Words

There are two words in the English language that form together to create a convenient phrase which seems to call out to us once we enter the world of adulthood. Taken separately, they are perfectly innocuous. When combined, we treat them as a panacea to avoid all unwanted invitations. This alluring concoction slowly becomes a poison that facilitates the shirking of even half-hearted commitment and, even worse, ends the possibility of continuing the conversation with another human being. When listeners hear these words, doors are closed, leads are not pursued, the topic is changed, perhaps even the relationship dies just a little bit as deeper conversation is a futile effort. We’ve already been told that the ship is sinking and that it’s too late to rescue those on board.

“I’m Busy”

I don’t remember when I started using this phrase to answer the Western greeting question of “how are you doing?” but I’m almost certain I never said it during my primary school years, and I used it sparingly in college (middle and high school were a blur). When I was in school, I could probably name off what it was I was doing precisely. I was never too busy to have a chat or to go meet up for a drink during those halcyon university days. There’s something about the fusing of these words, a forge melted together in Hell that says “Working World.” While the words that we hear are indeed “I’m busy,” we might as well be saying, “I’m a professional….what about you?”

“It’s a common misconception that appearing to be busy — even if you’re not — is a signal that you’re valuable, whether it’s to your boss, your colleagues, your family or your friends.” —, This is what you really mean when you say I’m busy

A Status Symbol

So…why is this phrase the go-to answer when people ask how we’re doing? One of the top reasons isn’t necessarily because we’re attracted to the idea of having a full schedule, but rather petrified of what it means if we don’t have our plate full.

It’s as if you are asking to be judged on how busy you seem, not how productive you really are. — Ed Baldwin, a Denver, Colorado-based human resources strategist and consultant (

What happens when someone asks me how I’m doing and I answer, “I’m just thinking about whether or not I want to take a walk and drink a cup of tea,” or “I was just trying to recall the dream I had last night and your face reminded me of something in it”? Needless to say, these answers might make for awkward, yet memorable pauses…or they might make the asker of the question let down his or her guard and join you on that walk while you talk about your dreams. When we say we’re busy, we’re telling the other person that what we do is more important than they are. By answering anything but “I’m busy,” we’re opening the door to possibilities of further conversation and greater understanding of the world around us.

In this Ted Talk, Debbie Hayes talks about the dangers of being too busy, as well as the opportunities for pause and reflection.

Fighting the Vortex

We will find ourselves continuously fighting to pull ourselves out of the “I’m busy” vortex, and it’s not an easy battle. Everything about society’s inertia and what it means to be a professional adult teaches us to stay busy, keep busy, and aim for busy. With determination and grit, however, we can keep ourselves from getting sucked in too far. “I’m busy” doesn’t need to be the go-to response for our futures, even if we’ve built up the habit. There’s a few small things we can do or change in our behaviors and speech to try to get out of this habit of a shut “busy” door.

  1. Tell the other person what you’ve been doing or what you’re working on. This one may seem obvious, but it’s not necessarily easy. Although it takes a bit more effort on our own parts, when asked “how are you doing,” we can actually say what we’ve been up to specifically. This answer helps those who are asking become better informed about us as individuals, as well as training ourselves how to be specific with our answers and the information that we give.
  2. Proactively ask if there’s anything that they need support with. If someone is talking with us and wants to know how we’re doing, there’s a good chance that they might need help with something. Rather than waiting for them to ask us for help, why not reach out and see if we can give a helping hand from the start? Sure, they want to know how we’re doing, but they’re also looking for a conversation-starter and most likely some point of connection. We can dig deeper and see if we’re able to help them out with any challenges or bottlenecks they might be facing.
  3. Invite them for a coffee or lunch at a later time. Sometimes we just really don’t want to engage in a conversation right there at that moment, or it’s just not the right time. Sometimes we just don’t know what to say. Rather than brush off the conversation, why not put a pause during the moment and invite the other person for a coffee or a lunch at a later time? It might be a genuinely pleasant experience.
  4. Take a chance and just say “yes, and….” For anyone who’s ever done any improv, the rule of “yes, and…” teaches us to accept the offer that is given to us on the stage and add onto it with more information. If someone says they need you for five minutes to look over a looming presentation as a second set of eyes, why not say “Yes, and I’d love to know what other projects you’re working on,” or “Yes, and maybe you could help me with a translation I just finished to let me know if it sounds alright.” Saying “I’m busy” all the time is like building a wall around yourself without any doors. Saying “yes, and….” creates an open door in that wall for both parties to travel through.
  5. Tell them that you’re up to nothing special. Why not do the exact opposite of saying “I’m busy,” and see what the reaction is when we say “nothing special,” or “I have a lot of free time recently, maybe we could have a chat for a few”? This response will surely raise eyebrows and knock a few folks back on their heels as they look for the right response to this unorthodox answer. It may be awkward, but it will certainly be memorable and surprising, and we could find ourselves traveling down some interesting rabbit holes afterwards.

Whatever our method is for combating being busy, the very first step we can take is in overall awareness — awareness in our surroundings and awareness in ourselves. Part of “being busy” is putting on tunnel vision and holing up in ourselves, and not necessarily in a healthy way. When we fall into the tunnel vision of busyness, we are less aware of ourselves, our colleagues, and the environment where we are living, breathing, and working in. Stepping out of the tunnel and into the light can be a scary thing, and our first few steps may be as shaky as a newborn lamb. Still, once we shed the layer of dead skin that once was “busyness”, we may find that we have started to transform not only ourselves and our own mindsets, but also those with whom we come into contact.

Do we really need to aim for the status of “busy,” or is there a higher status that we want to attain— one that says “I have all the time in the world, welcome to join me here!”




American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.

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The Clock Stops

The Clock Stops

American residing in Asia since 2004. Blogs focusing on life observations, improv, food, creating a learning organisation, management, and stretching time.

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