The Paradox of Busy

By Charles Eisenstein /
Feb 20, 2022
The Paradox of Busy

Sometimes, when people reach out to me with requests for interviews or writing, they preface the request with, “I know you must be very busy ...”

Usually, they say it as a token of respect. They mean to acknowledge my time as precious and I receive that impulse gratefully. Yet I notice something else stirring in me, too: a paradoxical mixture of pleased vanity and annoyance.

The vanity: If I’m busy, it must mean that I’m really important. It must mean I am in high demand. It must mean that I’m on track, motivated, active. That’s why being busy has become a “humble brag”—a way of bragging without seeming to brag, an assertion of dominance.

The annoyance: If I’m busy, I’m not the master of my time. I am subject to the demands of others. I suffer a scarcity of time. Claiming to be busy is therefore a gesture of submissiveness. I won’t say no to you directly, but meekly excuse myself by appealing to outside demands. I am not sovereign over my time; my schedule is.

Both these reactions mirror an unmet need. Under annoyance is a loss of power, while under vanity is a longing to be what the false self-image represents. If I’m flattered to think of myself as in-demand, on track, motivated and active, could it be that I long to be in-demand for something other than what life demands of me now? Could it be that I wish to be on a different track? Could it be that my motivation is flagging and my activity growing stale?

The mixed connotations of busy arise ultimately from the nature of work in modern society. Much of it is underpaid, tedious and degrading, and even meaningful work, such as in teaching and healing professions, usually accompanies unpalatable demands from bureaucracies and institutions. We wish to be less busy—free of the oppressive demands of modern living that make time scarce and life short. We also wish to be more busy—engaging more fully with life through meaningful work and relationships.

My point, therefore, is not to condemn the word busy, to complain when people assume I’m busy, or to suggest we say instead that we are engaged, occupied or have a lot on our plate. Euphemisms will not deliver anyone from the misalignment between the demands of modern life and the demands of the soul. Nor is there an easy way out of the dilemma in which we are cast.

A New Terablithia, acrylic on canvas by Tony Chen

Paradoxically, many people experience being busy, stressed, sleep-deprived and not having enough hours in the day even though, objectively, they spend a lot of time at leisure. Watching TV, playing video games or mindlessly scrolling through apps may look like leisure, but they feel compulsive. The resolution of this paradox is akin to that of wanting simultaneously to be more and less busy: I want to be in command of my time. I want to be sovereign over my life. I want to be free to do things beautifully and well. I want to live with dignity.

I am sure these desires are universal. No one truly wants to laze around, frittering life away in indolence. Try it for a while: You won’t be happy. To be sovereign over time and life is not the same as being selfish. Laziness is not the default state of those who fail to motivate themselves. Laziness is a rebellion against oppressive busyness and it is a refuge from mental, physical or emotional exhaustion.

Those of us who long both to be less and more busy, trapped in cycles of procrastination and hurry, sloth and stress, even mania and depression, might find that motivational tips and tricks and New Years’ resolutions and the habits of highly successful people offer little long-term benefit. What has helped me, though, is to recognize the authenticity of my longing—my longing to be busy with a life I love, to hold my time sacred, to be put to the very best use. Grounded in that truth, I become less susceptible to the forces that would keep me busy with anything else. Holding my time sacred, I naturally hold others’ time sacred, too. I become reluctant to comply with anything that puts anyone to poor use.

Thank you for taking a few minutes of your precious life to receive these words. I know you must be busy.


Charles Eisenstein is a public speaker and author. Stay up-to-speed with his work via his website, or subscribe to his Substack mailing list for weekly essays and musings.

Header image by Robert Bye via Unsplash.

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