Busy Is A Sickness


I’m busy.

I don’t know about you, but anytime I am asked, “How’s it going?” I never just say “fine” anymore. Instead, my stock response is always some degree of frazzled. The scale ranges from “busy”, to “crazy busy” to “nutballs.”

The good news is, my answer is usually met with sympathetic response, which is as reassuring as it is depressing.

“Tell me about it! We are, too!”

“I know! Isn’t it insane!”

“There’s never enough time in the day, is there?”

But something changed about a month ago. I bumped into a friend at the gym. Instead of sympathizing when I said I was “crazy busy,” he simply asked,

“Really? So what do you have going on today?”

I had to stop and think for a moment. No one has ever asked me to “describe my busy.” So I conducted a mental review of our calendar before explaining that I had a worship band rehearsal in the morning, followed by a basketball game for my son, a church commitment for my wife, a birthday party for my daughter, and a date night that evening.

His response?

“Sounds like a full day. Have fun!”

At first, I was a bit resentful. He obviously misunderstood me. I wanted to remind him how horrible all of this was. I wanted to explain how driving from place-to-place in my comfortable SUV was a huge pain in the ass. Not to mention how Gabby and I would have to split up for part of the day. Buying and wrapping the birthday gift? Don’t even get me started! And then only having an hour to get the kids fed and get ready for our semi-fancy date that evening.

Didn’t you hear me? I am busy! Sweet Baby Jesus, have mercy on my soul!

Here’s the thing. I wear busyness like a badge of honor. Only there’s no honor to be had.

Busy is a sickness.

The American Psychological Association has published its Stress In America survey since 2007. They find that the majority of Americans recognize that their stress exceeds levels necessary to maintain good health. The most frequent reason they cite for not addressing the problem?

Being too busy.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Dr. Susan Koven practices internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. In a recent Boston Globe column, she writes:

In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.

We’ve heard for years that excessive stress causes health problems. But notice that Dr. Koven didn’t say stress. She said busyness.

And it’s an epidemic.

Dr. Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist has studied stress and its effects, and found the root causes to be two types of busyness. Though he doesn’t give them official names, he describes the most damaging as busyness without control, which primarily affects the poor. Their economic reality simply does not allow for downtime. They have to work 2-3 jobs to keep the family afloat. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes overwhelming, and the stress results in legitimate health problems.

The second type of busyness also results in health problems, but it is a sickness we bring on ourselves. Like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom or having a sweaty picnic in the Ball Pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

It’s busyness we control.

Self-created stress.

Ever since my conversation a month ago, I realized that my busyness is this second type. Busyness we control. In fact, many times I create rush and worry where none exists. Any typical morning, you can find me riding my kids like a couple of three-dollar mules in a sea of marbles, begging them to move faster.

“If you don’t finish your waffles in the next 90 seconds, we’re gonna’ be late!”

“Do you like being tardy?! ‘Cause that’s what you’ll be if you don’t hurry up and brush your teeth!”

The funny thing is, whether I prod or not, we always seem to get to school at the same time every day. Before the bell. And if we’re late? Nothing bad really happens, but there is still the voice in my head telling me a couple of tardies today is a slippery slope that eventually leads to 5-10 years in Federal Prison.


After my conversation with my friend, I began to notice how much of my rushing was an overreaction to my “awfulizing” in my head. Most of the time, I manufacture urgency in hopes that it will create urgency in others. Instead, it only creates anxiety, resentment and spite. Which is absolutely counter-productive. And even in the cases where the urgency is real, it’s often due to a packed schedule I created.

All of this made me wonder:

Why would a grown-ass man, with a brain and two opposable thumbs, decide to voluntarily create stress in his life?

I found the answer, and it’s not pretty.

We are afraid of ourselves.

AM sickness shadow

In America, we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It’s the first question asked at parties, and often the first tidbit of information we share with strangers. The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something.

Now, before you start to think this is just one guy’s opinion, consider a recent study published in the journal Science. In one experiment, participants were left alone in a room for up to fifteen minutes. When asked whether they liked the alone time, over half reported disliking it.

In subsequent studies, participants were given an electric shock, and then asked if they would pay money to avoid being shocked again. Not surprisingly, most said they would trade money to avoid pain. However, when these same people were left alone in a room for fifteen minutes, nearly half chose to self-administer an electric shock rather than sit alone with their thoughts.

You read that right.



(Which is so not punny.)

Think about what this means. Just being is so painful that we are willing to hurt ourselves to avoid it.

And this is perhaps the saddest truth of all. I am created in the image and likeness of God, yet somehow that isn’t good enough for me. So I fill my Facebook feed and my calendar with self-important busyness to avoid just being. In the process I not only miss out on the peace and beauty that lies within myself, but I miss seeing that same beauty in others, because my manufactured urgency has covered it up with anxiety and worry.

It’s time I let my busyness rest in peace.

So my prayer today is this. That I stop defining myself by my doing but by my being. That I stop measuring time by the clock on the wall, but by the experiences I share with those around me.   And stop seeing my life as “busy” and instead, see it for what it truly is.


Writer’s note: For the past month, I have tried my best to eliminate the word “busy” from my vocabulary. The result? I feel lighter. Now, when people ask how things are going, I just say, “Life is full.” What works for you?

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36 responses to “Busy Is A Sickness

  1. Michelle

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post!! It is this exact sentiment that allowed my husband, daughters and I to get out of the NYC suburban rat race and relocate to a slower, quieter, calmer environment. Our quality of life has grown exponentially in the last 6 months and we cannot believe we waited so long to make the change.

  2. Charlie Palmgren

    It took me many years to discover that what I feared was “silence.” Much of my business was a distraction to avoid a silence I associated with emptiness.

    Then I discovered “The Silence.” A Silence filled with a Presence, a deep Satisfaction, even a profound Wisdom. Now I understand I wanted to avoid emptiness not silence. I realize all silences are not equal.

    Thanks for sharing Scott.

  3. race2renewables

    Totally agree. I feel bad for friends and family that live like this. You are so right it is rampant! You might want to add the importance of meditiation, of learning to be still in your thoughts. I know when I am off because I have learned to sense, then control the power of stressful thoughts and habits.

    This week for me is crunch time, time to hit company sales goals. I can drive myself crazy because I really am busy and it is stressful. But once it’s done, I relax, and take time to just be.

    Great post. I hope this helps others. Personally, if the need to have wealth (and fulfill the busy cycle to get there) makes you happy then great. If not, give it up, live below your means and focus on quality of life with friends, family and hobbies that give you joy.

  4. Reblogged this on My Freedom Wall and commented:
    Dr. Michael Marmot, a British epidemiologist has studied stress and its effects, and found the root causes to be two types of busyness. Though he doesn’t give them official names, he describes the most damaging as busyness without control, which primarily affects the poor. Their economic reality simply does not allow for downtime. They have to work 2-3 jobs to keep the family afloat. When you add kids to the mix, it becomes overwhelming, and the stress results in legitimate health problems.

    The second type of busyness also results in health problems, but it is a sickness we bring on ourselves.

    Like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom or having a sweaty picnic in the Ball Pit at Chuck E. Cheese.

    It’s busyness we control.

    Read more…

  5. We choose and our kids learn crazy busy too

  6. Glenys

    It almost seems like letting down the side at work if you don’t say you’re busy. If I manage time well and do what’s needed while still being aware of my own needs, I am liable to be labelled ‘organised’ in a way that isn’t really complimentary. Even the checkout operator asks, ‘Have you had a busy day?” The expected answer is yes. I am particularly mindful when leading worship that I don’t only talk or pray about those who are busy and stressed but those for whom days are empty and long and where time. hangs heavy.

  7. I actually took a sabbatical so I could slow down and focus on our two small children. I had this image in my mind of giggle-filled hours of play. Instead, I find myself all too focused on housekeeping. Sometimes I worry that I’m inventing reasons not to be with them. But at the same time, a preschooler and a toddler make for tons of dirty laundry! I’m just trying to strike a healthy balance and reminding myself that I’m a human being, not a human doing (phrase borrowed from the fabulous James Martin, SJ).

  8. Dale

    Excellent article:
    We humans have challenges with balance. We go too far in one way or too far in another way – usually the opposite. Like a pendulum we can swing back and forth wasting a lot of time and energy. As a southerner I have been critical of fast talking northerners. I have run into people that think as fast as their speech and are very sharp. I have run into people that think more before they speak. Often we can outdo ourselves or UNDERDO ourselves.

    I know this, if I am ‘flowing’ with cognitive skills, I can out-speed others around me while I understand what I said and why. This happens in times of great creativity. Everyone is different but I must say it is better to not outdo or underdo oneself.

    I led up to this, there is nothing wrong with ‘busy’ as long as you are not too busy or too lazy. There is one caution though, if you can’t stop yourself and pause and rest – you are too busy.

    In America many are thrilled with thinking and doing fast because of peer pressure. It is like dope and gives a false sense of well being and correctness and creates a desire to please others or even please oneself. Our expectations of ourselves can be driven by others or by that adrenaline rush and false euphoria that we think boosts our confidence (or even ego).

    This is where we fail the most –
    1. We can be so busy going that we really don’t know where we are going or why
    2. We can overdrive ourselves and create problems with our health, family, and relationships
    3. We can be so busy doing for others or self that we ignore God and the fact that He wants our lives balanced and if we strip gears He wants to repair them. Many have no time for their Creator, too busy. He instructed mankind to take one of the seven days of the week and rest – sabbath made for man and not man for the sabbath.
    4. If we don’t rest enough we may think we are accomplishing things and are hurting ourselves, others, and defying doing what we do destroying efficiency. There was one man that worked for Ford Motor company that an auditor criticized to Henry Ford about. The man just sat at his desk with his feet on the desk and seemed to do nothing. The auditor recommended getting rid of him. Henry corrected the auditor and told him how many millions of dollars that man saved and instructed him to leave the man alone.

    Sometimes we are our own worse enemies. We work for hours of concentration on solving a big problem and seem to get nowhere.We get frustrated and take a short break,get distracted and get our mind off of the problem and rest. We go back and solve the problem in minutes. We never need to not ‘allow’ ourselves to rest. Rest brings repair and regains focus. We can talk too fast, think too fast and miss a lot of details or we can slow down and pace ourselves and accomplish so much more. We need to check ourselves occasionally and evaluate if we are too busy or too lazy. The extremes!

    As Christians, if we are too busy to draw close to God for a few minutes, be intimate and honest with Him, and shut up and listen to Him then we can be doing ‘dead works’. Dead works are when we do things to supposedly please God, really to please or impress others or self, and call it doing God’s will. If we are walking with God, see a need and let Him give us release to do the job or to know that is what God wants vs others or ourselves, then we please God and do works that Honor Him. Ego and desire to be seen – be hung. If we do what is right God will be pleased and we will know His pleasure. If we do it to be seen of men or to just boost our ego or impress others then we have the wrong motivation and God looks at that as dead works to be burnt up like wood, hay, and stubble. We should like gold and silver for the reward – figuratively – to please God and know His delight and joy.

    “Be still an know that I am God.” “Rest in the Lord.” That stillness and rest can be pausing to rest or rest in motion. Rest in motion? Yes! If we let God be with us in what we do we can enjoy His presence while doing things. This combo causes us to be at TOP PRODUCTIVITY because God is our partner vs someone we visit occasionally and since HE created ALL THINGS, He can assist our thinking and show us things we would not naturally figure out. It take humility to not take the lead all the time and to follow sometimes. He may instruct us to take a break and talk to Him then return to work. We should listen and get ego out of the way and in balance. There is NOTHING WRONG with feeling good about yourself and things but if we create a false illusion then we live a lie and it will show up and we will be embarrassed eventually. Don’t think too high of yourself and don’t think too low of yourself. Honesty with self and God and others is ALWAYS the best policy.

  9. T

    Wow, yes. I’ve noticed when I say that I’m “busy”, the response is, “At least you have work!” I am an entrepreneur so I should be grateful to have work. And I am. Saying that I’m “busy” is the truth but it’s taken as if I’m being grumpy about it.

    I like how you put it another way. I need to get back to my morning meditation so I can relish in the stillness in the moments between the tasks. Thank you.

  10. It’s easy to allow our retirement hours to be ruled by this type of busyness too, after all we have all this time available and need to show others that we still have value by the number of “things” we are involved in.

  11. Sean


    You rock. Good words, but even better, written in a way that makes me laugh. I love your style. It’s nice to find someone with a little bit of edge, a little irreverence. And yet totally committed to truth. Love to grab a beer with you sometime brother. Keep up the good work.

  12. PeachyGirl

    Reblogged this on Adventures of a Peachy Georgia Girl… and commented:
    Some interesting thoughts here. I know that I am guilty of trying to avoid being alone without some distraction – and lately I’ve been feeling compelled to get rid of all of the distractions and just be.

  13. Reblogged this on Judy C. Hope and commented:
    This is really practical advice. If we stop long enough to ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this, or that, our lives would be a lot less complicated.

  14. Can’t argue with that logic. “Life is full.” I like that. The only thing I would add: “… and glorious.”

    Thank you for a word in due season.

  15. Leah

    Thanks so much for a challenging read. I know I fall into this trap all too often and, like others have commented here, I’m trying to change this. Many of my christian friends also fall into this ‘busy’ trap and I wonder how we come across to others who don’t know Jesus yet. My goal this year is to live simpler and through this closer to God so that my life reflects his love and peace!

  16. Owen Glendower

    “Writer’s note: For the past month, I have tried my best to eliminate the word “busy” from my vocabulary. The result? I feel lighter. Now, when people ask how things are going, I just say, “Life is full.” What works for you?”

    My answer to “How are you?” is “Better than I deserve,” which always reminds me that it’s the truth.

    My mother, a farm wife, raised three kids in a house without running water. That experience gives me a different perspective than most people on “busyness.”

  17. Thanks for a wonderful post! I saw this article on Huff Post and clicked over to your blog to learn more about you. My husband and kids and I first learned this lesson in Belize, where we did a 6-month family sabbatical a couple of years ago. It’s amazing how different our American culture is from so much of the world. Now we are in Costa Rica, realizing that Being is a much more valuable and enriching way to live than Doing. You are so spot on in your post. Thank you!

  18. Spot on, Scott! Busy is so distracting—from paying attention to our souls. it’s probably the number-one hazard of knowledge work.

  19. Shun

    Thank you for writing this interesting article which many people would be thinking vaguely but can not put well in words. I am writing this comment from Tokyo, Japan. First I read your article in Japanese in the HuffPost JP, but I got so interested that I looked for the original text, and that’s why I have reached here. Indeed, also in our Japanese conversation, we often say “Busy”. However, thinking of my case, when I answer “Busy” to someone, it is rather true to say that I want to say “I don’t like to set the appointment with you really, because I don’t like you” but it will be too rude to say this, so I say “Sorry, I will be BUSY on the day”. So I think that, in this way, “Busy” in the conversation is sometimes a good buffer material to give us peace and beauty…Of course, I don’t have to make myself really BUSY on the day just in order to show myself and others that I did not answer “BUSY” only to reject the appointment.

  20. lovelealyds

    Totally enjoyed this post. Thank you for writing it. It’s exactly what I needed to read this morning

  21. This is such a great piece. I think you’ve given me some food for thought for my own blog (http://www.insearchofslow.com/blog/). Such a great inspiration. Why is it that we’re so afraid of ourselves? What’s so scary about being alone in silence with ourselves?

  22. Reblogged this on Enlightened Spa Review and commented:
    This is a huge health concern! When I was fitted for my custom dental trays to deal with teeth grinding, filled my 1st script for migrane medicine and made my way into a shrinks to talk about stress, a light finally went off! I came to terms with this busyness business nearly nine years ago when I found my meditation practice. It is an ongoing process to continue this mindfulness. Thank you for the reminder and also spreading the word. This is a huge health concern. I no longer identify myself as busy “the medical sales rep,” or “the stressed out step mom.” I don’t take any slack for “sitting and doing nothing” either!!! I did a 180…nine years later my life looks like this http://www.enlightenedspareview.com…and I could not be happier.

  23. Awesome reminder and dialogue. So valuable…

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  27. Dale Whiten

    I read a book a long time ago that addressed this very thing. Busyness. The concern the author had was when someone asked you “what’s up?” And you immediately answered busy, then it may stop the person that asked from sharing what’s really on their mind because they may think you are too busy for them. So the author said his new response to people asking how he was doing, was to say, “Busy, but balanced.”

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