The Cult of Busy: Introductory Thoughts

The first time I noticed the correlation between “busy” and “important” was when a friend of mine boasted of her first “cardiac incident” at the age of 27. She was a very important person, after all. So important that she had to be on call 24 hours a day for her workplace, had to arrange everything around the schedule of her workplace, and rushed back to work after being released from the hospital, in case anything had happened that needed only her to fix. 1

Since I judge my worth the same way, I don’t really blame her. The Cult of Busy tells us that worthwhile people have full daytimers, with every minute packed. Want to do lunch with friends? I’ll have to plan that week in advance. Coffee date? Only if I can fit it in between my full-time job and my hours of volunteering. And I simply can’t agree to anything else right now, have I told you how busy and overwhelmed I am with all my important things to do?

There are things I think are wrong with this pace of life for everyone (including me, but as I said, I totally buy into it), but it’s especially difficult when it comes to people with disabilities. When you value someone’s worth as a human being on how much they can squeeze into a day, what value do you place on someone who cannot do all of that? And what value do you place on people who attempt to do enough to keep up with everyone else, but fail?

We value certain things in Western Society, and one of those things is How Important You Are, and how we judge that importance is how busy you are – how in demand you are – how many people want to know what you have to say.

One of the ways this manifests is around Work (by which I mean paid labour outside of the home – the issues of unpaid labour within the home are a bit different, and we all know that unpaid homemaking is very undervalued, and people have some odd ideas about home offices and small business run out of them, and then we get into volunteering and– well, I mean paid labour outside the home for now). “What do you do?” means “What is your job?”, and if you can’t work full-time because of a disability, well. Well. That’s so sad. What do you do all day, after all? (How important can you be? What will I talk to you about if I can’t talk to you about your job? Gosh, you must be lazy. It must be nice to sit around all day!)

And then things get internalized. “I don’t have a job. I’m not contributing. I’m not important. I better make myself small and inoffensive in some way so that no one thinks I’m a burden. I don’t really have a lot of worth as a person because I’m not contributing.”

The Cult of Busy reinforces a lot of abliest ideas about who is important, and who is not, which means that the people with disabilities who can’t do It All (whatever It All is) are by default not important. They don’t count. They don’t need to be considered in how you build a business, say, because they’re never going to work for you and never going to spend money there because they aren’t important. They’re not worth including in your campaign about social justice issues because they don’t work so they don’t really contribute and even if they did, no one cares about what they have to say anyway because they aren’t important. If they were important, they’d be Busy. And Busy means something very specific: As many hours of the day filled with Stuff To Do as possible.

I want to write a lot about the Cult of Busy, in a variety of ways. How The Cult of Busy feeds into the idea that people who work less than 40 (or 60 or 80) hours a week are “getting away with something” and “not actually committed to their jobs”. How if you’re not working you “should” be volunteering, because otherwise you’re doing “nothing” with your day. How we disdain people who “just sit around all day”. How people like me end up confusing “busy” with “important and meaningful” to the point where we make ourselves ill doing too many things and being torn in too many directions.

Be busy. Be more. Be better.

[Be exhausted. Be unwell. Be harmed.]

  1. This wasn’t actually true, just how she perceived things. When she was fired several months later and the place she worked at was better for it, she was the only one surprised.

34 Comments

  1. The first time I noticed the correlation between “busy” and “important” was when a friend of mine boasted of her first “cardiac incident” at the age of 27.

    When she was fired several months later and the place she worked at was better for it, she was the only one surprised.

    I’m detecting a note of schadenfreude here. You say this woman is a friend, but you seem pretty gleeful that she wasn’t as important as she thought.

    I agree the busy=important paradigm is really flawed, but it’s obviously an incredibly potent myth, one your “friend” was clearly a victim of if she worked herself until she had a cardiac event at a young age. She didn’t invent the system, and obviously isn’t benefiting from it if she both ended up hospitalized AND lost her job. Bottom line, I guess, is that I think she deserves your sympathy, not your scorn, based on what you’ve written about her.
    .-= Gnatalby´s last blog ..Carmela Gets Her Groove Back =-.

  2. I’m so utterly guilty of this internalisation thing; “I don’t work (ignore the parenting and homemaking I do for a moment, because I also internalise the idea that these things are not valuable work) because I am disabled, because I am not working I am contributing nothing of worth, therefore I am not of worth.” It’s so easy to do, especially when the rest of the world is reinforcing these beliefs.

  3. I wouldn’t have to work even if I were healthier – not right now, I got good enough grades in a poor enough household to coast – financially – through college.

    But I still feel like just going back to my to rest after classes isn’t enough, why aren’t you doing more? Why don’t you go to parties, hang out with one person you know and 10 others you don’t? Why aren’t you normal? (Why aren’t you like your sister?)

    I do go out when something I like is happening, but I’m not a social person. It doesn’t mean I’m less of a person. “What did you do all afternoon?” “Internet, avoided homework, the usual.” No one else seems to care, why should I care? I don’t, I’m quite happy with my routine, but I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on the college experience because I’m not running myself ragged with 50 groups or something. (I also felt that way the few times I was healthy enough to go to school in high school – if I don’t join something, I’ll never get into college!)

    And yes, I was pushed into volunteering during the year I took off between high school and college. “You’re not going to sit around the house all day!” I enjoyed myself, but working there has left some lasting impressions on me – more compassionate, but also freaked out about the future (in America) and how dangerous it is, how easy it is to fall between the cracks, so a B in a class = failure, doom, etc.

  4. Gnatalby, I don’t think schadenfreude is the right term, mostly because I am not gleeful she turned out not to be as important as she thought. I’m sad that she had convinced herself she had to be that important, that she didn’t matter as a person if she wasn’t that important. I wanted to make it clear that working as hard as she was wasn’t because her job required it of her, but because she had totally internalised that idea to the point that it’s one of the reasons she was fired.

    But there are also other issues in that story that are, no doubt, influencing my tone. For a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into them. (Unfair, I know – “There’s stuff you don’t know and I won’t tell you!” – but I don’t want to make myself ill dealing with it again. The story is several years old.)

    Anji – Yeah, exactly. I mean, part of my whole thing can be summed up as “If only I strike the right amount of Busy, I will suddenly be worthwhile as a human being and then I’m allowed to fail at something. ‘Oh, of course Anna can’t keep the house clean, she’s so busy!'” Or something like that.
    .-= Anna´s last blog ..I love the sound of Harps in the morning! =-.

  5. Great article. I never feel like I’m doing enough (work part time, teach an RE class, volunteer at my kids’ school, cook, deal with crohn’s and psoriasis, and go to graduate school myself.)

  6. I think, in retrospect – and I am guilty of this as well, so I’m not pointing to anyone here! – that this is probably not the best thread to list what all one is doing, because I think it plays into the idea we’re talking about. *ponders* I think there must be a better way of discussing the idea and the ways we buy into it without doing the “Oh, but these are the many things I do–” lists. [As I said, I’ve done exactly that – more than once! – so I get where the impulse comes from.]

  7. Oh, hey, now that I’ve re-read my footnote, I see where the idea that I’m gleeful she was fired came from. Hmm. I’m not sure how to re-word it, actually, as I’m about to head out the door.

  8. I think it’s really important to reiterate the point that Anna made above. The cult of busy is incredibly toxic and very internalized, and, honestly, I am getting anxious and uncomfortable reading comments in which people list the things they do/are doing. Even though I am aware of the cult of busy, I read these and I am thinking “why aren’t I doing this, shouldn’t I be doing more, I’m a failure.” I’ve really had to work on accepting that what I do is “enough,” and seeing other people’s versions of “enough” and “too much” makes me unhappy, especially since those lists are often feeding into the fact that many of us feel like we need to justify ourselves (and our existence) by providing evidence that we are doing “enough.”

    If people could find a way to talk about how social pressures and the cult of busy influence them without providing lists of all the things they do, I would really appreciate it!

  9. I think I’ve managed to mostly do away with the idea that I should be doing more, internally. I don’t (anymore) feel bad about what I do or don’t do all day, and feel comfortable telling people I don’t work, am on a full Wajong (disability income), and if I feel it’s any of their business and they’re not intruding, I am also comfortable actually listing what I do on an average day. What bothers me more now is that there are certain things I want to do because I like them that I’m also not getting done because of lack of assistance.

    Mostly, though, because I’m not totally over it (don’t know if it will ever happen either), because I can get kinda defensive over it too, almost challenging (like inside I’ll feel like: “Go on then, I DARE you to ask me what I do all day or make a remark about how awful/sad it must be or anything remotely along those lines” and I think it shows in my tone or on my face because people tend to back off/become uncomfortable or less convinced).

  10. Yeah, this is exactly why one friend described me as the most unproductive workaholic I ever met.

  11. i find that i am getting better at not over-committing — i try to always ask myself if the new “thing” is a) something that i actually want to do, and b) something that will make my life (or my family’s lives) measurably better. but i still fall into the trap of thinking that i am less worthy, less important than the other adults in our household who work full-time outside the home… i think it’s at least partly because, while lip-service is paid to how much i do for everyone else, there is no definite value attached to my work.

  12. Reading this has struck a cord with me. I’ve never really been able to fully form the thought, but the Cult of Busy has me in its snares. I was recently diagnosed with a chronic illness that I’ve frankly been living with for the past ten years or more, I’d guess.

    I have Fibromyalgia. That means I literally _can’t_ do the things ‘normal’ people can. I just don’t have the energy of a healthy person. I’ve also been unemployed for.. longer than I care to remember, but for the past year or so, I’ve known, even if I could find a job, my health is just not good enough to allow me to work. I’d get sick. Really sick, and fast.

    I hate meeting new people. I hate family reunions (which I used to love). I hate having to explain myself. Everyone wants to know what you’re ‘up to’, ie they want to know about your work. I don’t work. And when I tell them, I get that look, I get judged. I am made to feel even more worthless than I already feel for not being able to work. It also makes me angry, because, who are they to judge?! Do they have any idea what my circumstances are?! And regardless, why is my worth based on my job? I’m not my job!

    And yet, I internalise this. I feel worthless because I can’t work. I feel guilty because I’m not looking for work. I beat myself up on my bad days when I’m in so much pain/so tired that I don’t get dressed, and can’t stand long enough to make myself something to eat, never mind do anything else. I know I’m not well, and yet I still beat myself up because I’m not contributing. I think, I don’t work, I should be able to do our laundry, get groceries, make dinner, clean the apartment. But honestly, more often than not, doing all of that is just beyond me. I feel like a failure for it. It makes me want to hide in a hole and never come out.

  13. I think, for me, part of the cult of busy come from a failure to acknowledge the differences between my life now and my life when I was younger and my time less taken by other things (my job, for example, takes more time than classes did when I was at university; I didn’t spend 2 or more hours each day in transit back then, the way I do now). I’m not doing more different things, but the things that I do take more time each thing. There’s a perceptual gap—somehow, I think that if I’m not doing more different things, changes to the number of hours each thing takes are not relevant.

    I also never internalized the fact that as I get older, I am simply less able to thrive on inadequate sleep. I think this last is a bit of fallout from our age-phobic, youth-and-health-centric society: aging is incredibly undesirable in the popular imagination, and we rarely talk about the changes it wreaks on a person’s body and abilities as something to be accepted. We speak of the effects of aging as something to be overcome. And of course, disability is a less popular topic in the popular narrative. If disability is presented, it’s something to be “overcome,” or something that “holds you back.”

  14. I think one of the hardest things about not being able to participate in the cult of busey is trying to answer the question of, “what do you do all day?” Even Anna, who sees what my disabilities mean, day in day out asks the question and no matter who asks, I never know how to answer.

    I could say that my disabilities are my full time job. On one level I think that’s true but I can’t fight clear of the cult of busy enough to really believe it. I tell myself I must just be “coping out” or “lazy”.

    If I try and describe my activities during a given day I hit a double bind. I don’t want pity or to be told how I should live my life so I feel obligated to make my day sound interesting. Of course I often don’t feel like it is interesting because, why could a day that isn’t busy be interesting?

    In the end the cult of busy tells me that how I need to live my life is wrong. That I can’t be happy or have meaning. No matter how well intentioned people are they don’t really get how broken this idea of busy is and I can’t really blame them because deep down I don’t get it either

  15. Three years ago I left a budding career as an ‘important person’ because I was concerned about what it was doing to my health. (Yes, ‘important person’ can be a job description — so long as you recognize the quotes! *grin*) My husband and I started a business from our home that would support us without causing more stress than we wanted.

    A year later, I … collapsed emotionally. (I apologize if my language is off. I’m not sure how to describe it.) All the guilt I’d been repressing because I wasn’t working even 40 hours a week — when I used to work 60 every week! — came out. I wasn’t busy anymore. I wasn’t contributing like I should. I wasn’t being listened to. (This one was especially bitter for me given my experiences as a woman.) I was cheating the system. I wasn’t important anymore. I didn’t matter. I … shut down.

    My husband helped me find a therapist. The therapist helped me articulate and understand my fears and feelings, and also helped me find a doctor. The doctor helped me identify an underlying bipolar disorder and start along the road to finding a medication that worked for me.

    All of these people together helped me realize that all that guilt … was bunk. I have mental and physical conditions that sometimes make the things I want to do difficult for me. And sometimes the things I want to do are desirable to me only because I’ve internalized concepts of personal worth that are also bunk.

    I’m still dealing with the fallout from all these events and ideas. I’ve found this community to be amazingly helpful in my attempts. I’m really glad you’re all here with posts like this one.

  16. So Much Yes.

    I still struggle constantly with the internalization of the damaging idea, but I also find that I take pride in sometimes taking time off to do nothing. “Today is a Me Day, and I’m going to sit here and watch TV even if I’m physically capable of doing more today because I CAN.” It can feel really good to just decide to be not-busy once in awhile, even if my illnesses make it so that I often have non-busy days against my will. Choosing to be not-busy is a whole different feeling; a whole different thing.

  17. I’ve really been thinking about this in the last couple of weeks, after my sister told me that I “have no life” because I stay at home all the time “connected to my computer.” I feel like these were my exact thoughts, that because I stay at home and don’t contribute, she thought of me as someone who is worthless.

    I hate having people ask me what I do all day, what I plan to do with my life/what do I want to be, where do I go to school. I stayed an extra year in high school and plan on going to community college. People are extremely judgmental, and say things like “There’s nothing wrong with staying an extra year/going to community college” or “Oh, well, lots of people go to community college and still end up being successful.”

  18. Great post!
    I’ve rejected this nonsense a long time ago.
    In my opinion I’m busy, too, even right now, typing this comment, and I’m almost always busy with autistic perseverations, but I constantly get the message from the outside world that my kind of busy isn’t important, so I thought “screw that, it’s important to me!”
    I really hope more people will un-internalize* this bad message.
    (*I wonder if there’s a proper term for it.)
    .-= Kowalski´s last blog ..Oh, Oprah! =-.

  19. You know what’s fun in the way that nothing is fun?

    You pull yourself out, you take a break. For your health, for your mental well-being, so you can take an effing nap.

    And you pay. I cut my hours this semester, so I either have to take summer school or take more hours than I usually take either in the fall or the spring, if I want to graduate.

    Rumphius – yes, that is my sister! “How can you talk about an issue when you’ve only read about it online?” (Like movie reviews…)

    I hope to not be my job – I don’t care if my job is related to my degree, I just want a job and benefits. This is just so bizarre! Be more idealistic, you’re still in college, what did you want to do in 4th grade? Reach for the stars!

  20. Excellent post.

    The issues I have are surrounding social ‘busy-ness’. I often get asked, ‘How was your weekend? Did you do anything interesting?’ And everyone seems to have action-packed weekends full of sports or gardening or such like. Somehow ‘I read a book’ feels inadequate.

    Another friend has a habit of asking, ‘What are you doing on the [whatever date]?’ – implying I must be available for socialising if I’m not ‘doing’ anything else. And I suppose the internalised thing shows in the fact that, ‘I’m planning on chilling out by myself’ doesn’t feel like an accepatable answer.

  21. I’ve internalized this so much that I’ve become erratic and miserable if I don’t have too much on my plate. But if I have too too much on my plate, I get overwhelmed and shut down/have an episode. It requires a delicate balancing of the scales. Over the years, I’ve accepted that I need a lot more down time than some other people. And I had to reorder my life in accordance with that. It’s still a work in progress. But I always feel some measure of guilt … that I’m able to be the way that I am only because other people do so much more (like my husband). I know societies need people with all types of abilities, but some days I’ll read an article about someone doing some amazing thing and I feel both inspired + like I’m not pulling my own weight, so to speak. Times like those, I have to remind myself of the verse from the Tao te Ching, “When you are content to be simply yourself, and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you.” I’m not sure if that’s a fact, but I pretend that it is.

  22. @Kaitlyn: Yeah, the idea that you have to do tons of stuff in high school to get into college bugs me too. It was something I struggled with, and I’m perfectly abled! (Aside from undiagnosed depression and AS…) College prep drove me nuts, because a lot of it was about what you’re doing outside of school, but there pretty much wasn’t anything TO do I was interested in. More accurately, there wasn’t anything besides sports and church groups, neither of which were viable options for me.

    The cult of busy is coming back to haunt me again now that I’m going back to college. I feel like going to school part-time isn’t enough, even though it’s getting me out of the house for the first time in two years. I have class-mates who are working, or studying full-time (or both), and I’m struggling with not wanting to do too much else I stress myself back out of being functional, and wanting to be ‘normal’. And once again, there’s no school activities I’m actually interested in ><

  23. @Kaitlyn- Oh jeez, my sister says the exact same thing as well.

    @Jayn- I got sick in the beginning of high school, and the extra-curriculars, APs, and SAT prep was way too much for me to handle. I spent so much time freaking out about school so that I could get into a “good college” but kept getting behind and exhausted. I totally internalized the college obsession. I still feel sometimes like I need to be doing more–take difficult classes! participate in a bunch of extra! curricular! activities!

  24. I have one good thing to say about high school and extracurriculars and AP and all that whohaw.

    I did beat myself up over not doing anything when I was in school. (I was in groups by grade average, but never went to meetings.)

    I am good at taking tests, or I was. I am also smart and a non-annoying teacher’s pet. (Not annoying the teacher, annoying my classmates, who cares?)

    Just by my grades and ACT score, I got a really good scholarship – a scholarship only based on those numbers, not based on how many Saturdays I stood in a parking lot waving a sign for a carwash. I’m at a public university with some standards, but extra currics were not one of them. And I’m pretty happy with the education I’m getting.

    So not being able to run yourself ragged doesn’t spell doom and gloom for college. Though it does now that I’m in college, because they tell us (as freshmen, to scare us into doing things) that it looks good on your resume, meaning doom and gloom for the working world if you don’t. I hope to prove that wrong!

  25. My old boss at my old job was big on the Cult of Busy.

    His position was basically, he had it all, he was doing it all, so why couldn’t his employees? And it was… I couldn’t do it. But when I couldn’t balance work, AND studying wok-related material AND working from home plus whatever else – he gave me a hard time about it.
    It got harder when I had some invasive pain for several months, since that required time to manage, too.

    Eventually I got out of it. I switched jobs & I’m much happier now, the atmosphere is so much more welcoming… I don’t have to push myself so hard anymore. I think I’ve broken out of the Cult.

  26. I would like to explicitly call out Capitalism for creating/reinforcing/benefiting from this phenomenon. Capitalism thrives by prizing “productivity” above all else (especially considering that often we are not the direct beneficiaries of all this busyness). (This is obviously an oversimplification but I thought that it was important that this was acknowledged.)

  27. I can’t really say much about my situation which hasn’t been said by others. Instead, here’s a few affirmations and practical thoughts I use to help keep myself on an even keel (mentally) when my brain is telling me I should be up and doing.

    * “The first law of thermodynamics: heat is work and work is heat” (as per M Flanders and D Swann) – I find this one particularly useful in the Australian summer, as a reminder of why I don’t want to be rushing about the place on a day where it’s 40C in the shade.
    * Prioritising: things I want to do; things I am doing for other people which have fixed deadlines; things I am doing for other people which don’t have fixed deadlines; things I think I should be doing; things other people think I should be doing; things I can’t stand doing; things which will fix themselves if I just leave them alone for long enough; things other people will do for themselves.
    * Some things cannot be rushed. No matter how much effort I put in, the plants won’t grow any faster. Let it be.
    * The only task for which I am completely irreplaceable is the task of being me. Everything else can be done by other people – and sometimes it’s easier to let them do it.
    * Embrace constructive laziness: sometimes it’s easier to spend three-quarters of an hour figuring out a way to make a ten minute task into a five minute task, particularly if you have to do the ten-minute task every single day.
    * Just because you can doesn’t mean you have to.
    * The law of Chinese Relativity: no matter what my triumph, no matter what my disaster, one billion Chinese don’t give a damn.
    * A lack of planning on your part is not a reason for a panic on my part.
    * Whose problem is this, anyway? If it’s my problem, I’ll deal with it as and when I’m able to. Your timetable, however, is not and has never been one of my problems.
    * There is only one expert on what I am physically capable of doing. You are not it. Neither is your mate, or the doctor, or the guy behind the desk at Centrelink, or anyone else who isn’t inhabiting this particular body of mine.

    I’ll admit, a lot of this is aimed at developing a very bloody-minded attitude toward the unspoken expectations of others, and the efforts of other people to make me internalise those expectations. It requires a certain degree of sheer, bloody-minded selfishness (lucky I’m depressive, eh?) and sometimes maintaining this selfishness is in and of itself a significant mental effort. Fortunately, the results are worth it.

  28. “(like inside I’ll feel like: “Go on then, I DARE you to ask me what I do all day “

    Oh, this is a question I dread. “What do you do all day?” And why the hell do people ask it? What answers do they think they’re going to get? What am I supposed to say? “Um, I like to read books. I talk with my friends. I watch TV. Sometimes I do a few minutes upright to put dinner in the crockpot or supervise my kid’s homework. Pretty much, in other words, the same as you do, but without the going-to-work and going-out and doing-lots-of-housework bits.”

    Is this really so hard for people to imagine? I suppose it is.

  29. I know here are some comments in mod waiting for me to approve them but I’m not going to get a chance to look at this thread again until tomorrow.

  30. I just really love this post, I don’t have anything to contribute. Except maybe – someone very close to me has had fibromyalgia for a number of years, and while she and her various doctors have been able to lessen her symptoms a lot, she’s coming to terms with the fact that she may not be able to work full-time outside of the home. I think she might appreciate reading this post.

  31. The cult of busy also plays into the way that people are defined by their paying jobs and how modern American bourgeois culture largely expects people to somehow make their jobs the most important things in their lives. Phooey on that. My job takes up a lot of my life, but it is not equivalent to my life.

  32. Thanks for this. Appreciating the comments and conversations, too.

    One area I have internalized this is with regards to socializing. While I am fairly social much of the time my mental health issues sometimes make interacting with large crowds or loud places too hard for me. It’s not just being tired, being in these environments when I am not capable is so much it almost hurts physically, and can push me in much deeper disassociative places. So sometimes I need to be away from Big Socializing, but I feel incredibly guilty for wanting that.

    I don’t always need total solitude, and actually most of the time I would really like small-scale socializing, but I feel to ask for that would be to interfere with people’s busy (there’s that word!) social lives. To not have a flurry of important events to go to makes me feel socially discarded, so if I am needing quieter time it usually means that despite knowing a lot of people I’ll be alone, because to ask people to hang out in ways that aren’t about those busy events feels like I’d be admitting social failure or something. And because that intersects with my mental health issues, it makes me less accepting of my own neurodiversity. Shame, rinse, repeat.

  33. Anna, I don’t know if you’ve ever read the book “No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life” by Heather Menzies, but it touches on a lot of what you talk about here. It doesn’t really talk about disability, but IIRC there’s a chapter about how changes to the way healthcare in Canada is run has resulted in more impersonal interactions with patients, and I *think* there was a chapter that talked a bit about Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, but it’s been a few years since I read it and I can’t vouch for whether or not that part is fail-y. I think it was published in 2005.

  34. I’m a half time student (and pretty much just that now – I haven’t done any grocery shopping in over a month, and that time was when a friend offered to drive me to the supermarket and back. Yay campus cafeterias?), and I’m managing my workload about as well as I did years ago when I was full time and coping with it (before I got ill). I still get the flashes, especially when my classmates are rushing off to lectures that I’ll be doing next year but I’m getting ready for a sit down and maybe some background reading, that I should be full time, that I should be trying harder to be a ‘normal person’ instead of taking the time out that my body needs. I’m still in the process of teaching myself to stop thinking it (along with a load of other self-destructive things).

    I think I’m going to link this post around a bit (even if it’s way old – I only just found it).