Lately I’ve caught myself using language I’m not proud of. Specifically, a four-letter word that, when I hear someone else say it, makes me cringe and think to myself, “Really? Is that all you’ve got?” The word is…busy. When someone asks, “Hey how’re you doing?” my response is some variation of that word: “Really busy. Soooo busy. Crazy busy!” And their reply is often, “Yeah, me too!” or, “Better than the alternative.”
And yes, having a lot on my plate is a good thing. I have ongoing, challenging projects with great colleagues. I have a family that needs and loves me and plans with friends I look forward to—lucky me! I also choose to schedule regular workouts and cook healthy meals from scratch. Toss in the typical time-suckers like laundry, running errands, and paying bills, and my waking hours get gobbled up pretty quickly.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A study in the Journal of Psychological Science shows that, in fact, we’re much happier when there’s a lot going on in our life. So if that’s the case, why does saying how busy I am cause my chest to tighten and make me feel anxious? As it turns out, the way I describe my packed day may be contributing to my schedule stress. A study on the psychological aspects of language shows that our word choice matters—it shapes how we view ourselves and interpret our actions—and constantly announcing how “busy” we feel makes even a day full of fun activities feel overwhelming.
After some reflection, I’ve decided I’d be happier, and less stressed, if I didn’t use “busy” to describe my full life. I challenge you to do the same. Here’s why.
1. It disconnects us from other people
Saying you’re busy can come across as self-centered and signals that you’re not available to connect. “When we use the word ‘busy’ in a conversation we’re sending a not-so-subtle message that it’s time to wrap up this interaction,” says Dr. Andrew Shatté, meQuilibrium’s Chief Science Officer and co-founder. And that can be hurtful—not only to the other person, but ultimately to ourselves. “Positive social events are a key element to resilience and a buffer against stress. So, short-changing ourselves socially is a short-sighted strategy at best.”
2. It prevents us from being present
The minute the word “busy” comes out of my mouth, life becomes more hectic. I start mentally cycling through my to-do list, which draws my attention away from the present moment. Anticipation creates physical tension and stress, which drains my energy.
Being mindful and present, on the other hand, encourages calm and clarity, creating space in my head so I can get some perspective on my thoughts and feelings, and allows my body to relax. That’s a much better way to take on the day.
3. It can mask self-doubt
Telling others how busy we are is a humble-brag, a boast disguised as a complaint. It implies, I’m so important, I’m always in demand, and serves as a kind of existential reassurance—a hedge against emptiness. We feel the need to say we’re so busy to prove our worth.
“Many people wear their busyness as a badge of honor,” says Dr. Shatté. But we also live in a society with a ferocious work ethic—and that approach to life is doing damage to our bodies, our relationships, and our lives.
If you are always focused on what you need to do next, all your accomplishments (from big to small) will be overlooked. We need to take time out to smell the roses, to experience and fully embrace our positive times and emotions.
Summing up our life as “busy” doesn’t acknowledge all the good things that happen to us each day. So I have tried to stop thinking of my to-dos as obligations, and instead look at them as gifts to myself: I choose to work three jobs because I want to save for a big trip; I choose to work out because it makes me feel good; I make plans because I love movies and seeing friends.
It’s time to reframe our full schedules using a more descriptive word or phrase: How about, “Filled to the brim.” “Eventful.” Even, “Overflowing”—all of which have more positive connotations, and probably what we mean anyway. Cutting the word busy from our conversations just may make life seem a little less stressful.
Janet Ungless is a New York-based editor and writer with expertise in wellness, health and fitness. She developed the content strategy for the launch of aloha.com and has managed content creation for several other startups. She’s written for Prevention, More, Livestrong, and Everyday Health and also worked at exhale mind body spa. Find her on Twitter @jungless