The B Word: Why I Hate “Busy” (And 3 Ways To Say It Less)

(Laura’s note: I’m on maternity leave, and while I’ll be blogging occasionally over the next few weeks, I wanted to use the opportunity to run guest posts from my favorite bloggers. Enjoy!)

by Camille Noe Pagán

I don’t know when, exactly, I started cringing when I heard the word busy (yes, even when it was coming out of my own mouth). Maybe it was when I noticed that when I asked others how they were doing, they inevitably responded “busy” instead of “good.” Maybe it was when I began feeling like “busy” was shorthand for “I’m important/popular/successful.” (I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as the cult of busyness, which seems about right).

Here’s the thing: I don’t know a single human being who doesn’t have a lot going on. It’s called modern life, and whether you’ve a stay-at-home mom, a work-at-home-mom, childless, single, a student—chances are, you’ve got commitments that multiply when you’re not looking. Everyone’s insanely busy.

Obviously, there are times when it’s okay—and even necessary—to say you’re busy. But saying it less often gives it a lot more weight when you actually need it. Here’s how I’ve been scaling back on the B word:

1. I say when I’m available instead of when I’m not. I was attempting to make plans with a friend one day, heard myself talking and stopped in my tracks. There I was, laying out all my various travel plans and meetings and deadlines … and I was boring myself, which means my friend was probably seconds from dropping into a coma. I realized that it was more effective and easier on the ears to simply tell her when I was free. I don’t always get it right, but I’m making a concerted effort to do that more often.

2. I stopped using “I’m busy” as an excuse. As Laura points out, “I’m busy” usually means “It isn’t a priority.” When you don’t want to do something, or even can’t do something (say, a PTA fundraiser or a lunch that you know will eat up the rest of your workday), try saying “No thank you,” or “Maybe next time.” When I realized that I didn’t owe anyone an explanation for how I choose to spend my time, I stopped using the B word so often. Interestingly, the guilt factor went way down. In some way, saying “I’m busy” when someone asks you to do something seems sort of like saying “You’re not as important as the other things I’m doing.” A simple “I can’t” or “Not now” seems straight-forward and impersonal (in a good way).

3. I acknowledge that the other person is busy—and leave it at that. It’s too easy to get into a busy pissing match. You mention that you have some commitment keeping you tied up; the other person tells you how they have two commitments that are exhausting them; you feel the need to show them that hey, you’re exhausted, too, because you’re actually doing even one more thing you forgot to mention before; and so on … until the friend or colleague you’re talking to suddenly seems unbelievably annoying (and guess what? She’s thinking the same thing about you!).

When a family member recently listed her insanely crazy schedule to me, I simply said, “Wow, sounds like you have a lot going on.” She looked, well, grateful. It could have been that she just wanted someone to acknowledge that her life is extremely stressful right now. I’m not sure. I just know that it felt good to listen instead of trying to talk.

Camille Noe  Pagán is a journalist (O,, Parade, Glamour), mom to two kids and author of the novel The Art of Forgetting.

5 thoughts on “The B Word: Why I Hate “Busy” (And 3 Ways To Say It Less)

  1. I so agree! Especially with point #1. I don’t want to know when you’re NOT free. To me, it means you are saying, here are a dozen other things more important than you. Just tell me when you’re free – and if you don’t want to do something, say it!

  2. Great post. I stopeed saying “I’m too busy”, or “I don’t have time”, when my son was going through some medical issues and I suddenly had an obligation 3 nights each week. If someone had told me I had to make that sort of a time commitment I would have definitely played the “b card”, but this was important, and what do you know? I wasn’t too busy after all.

    I especially like the comment about using “busy” to mean “important/popular/successful”. I know too many people who use it that way.

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