The Cult of Busy

As I find myself winding down to my sabbatical, I’ve had one persistent thought that’s been causing me a lot of anxiety: why aren’t I busier?

I’ve heard so many tales of coworkers working 60+ hours weeks, just to get everything done in time for their sabbaticals, or coworkers who ended up working through the first couple weeks of theirs.

Conversely, I find myself, the week before my sabbatical begins. with a very manageable to-do list. 

Instead of making me appreciate that I’m able to wind down without having to put in extra time, it worries me. I feel like I should have more to do and I need to be working more.

I feel guilty that I’m not overworked right now. Like I’ve done something wrong.


Why do we have such a sick obsession with overwork in America?

I remember in college when my friends and I would regale ourselves with the shocking amount of work we needed to get done that week, like some twisted form of bragging about how busy we were. It was almost a mark of status that you were up to your eyeballs in work.

In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown writes:

One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.

(I feel so called out right now.)

Keeping busy is a coping mechanism for our feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Surely, how can’t I be successful? Look at how busy I am!

We get ourselves into a cycle of believing that quantity is the same as quality. The more we work, the better we must be doing.

Obviously, this isn’t the case. But my anxiety and my desire to be seen as capable and successful and hard-working keep tricking my brain into thinking this is true.

The short answer to why I’m not busier right now is: I’ve known about my sabbatical for over half a year, and planned the past few months accordingly. I scoped my work out for the first half of this year with the knowledge that it all had to get done before I left. My team lead and my coach helped keep me accountable for these goals.

The fact that I’m not busier right now, in this last week before I go on sabbatical, is a good thing — it means I succeeded at keeping the scope of my work in-check. I didn’t start anything new this past month so I could focus on wrapping up my existing projects. 

And yet. And yet. There’s still that persistent nagging in the back of my head. Why aren’t you busier? You should be working twelve hour days this week! Everyone else has!

Clearly, this is something I need to work towards getting over during my sabbatical. I want to be like Paul Jarvis, who wrote in his most recent newsletter: 

I’m really not that busy with work. Outside of a few times a year, that’s just never the case. Busy is an exception, not a rule. Busy is being reactive, and being constantly reactive doesn’t seem like the best way to run a business for the long term. … Being busy often means I’m completely failing at pace and scheduling.

Paul Jarvis, Sunday Dispatches

I admit to being both a little in awe, and a little jealous when I read his email. But Paul has it right — busy is reactive. And busy is a shield, a tool for numbing ourselves against our feelings of vulnerability. 

I’m not busy this week. And that’s a good thing.

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2 thoughts on “The Cult of Busy

  1. Why aren’t you busier? You should be working twelve hour days this week! Everyone else has!

    Another way to look at it: you’ve been organized and planned super well, and others can learn from you. I certainly will. ❤️

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