Like so many other important revelations about humanity, this story begins with an incident of ghosting. I’d gone on three dates with a man who seemed invested, and then he rudely and abruptly stopped being in love with me. Why? It’s still entirely unclear, though it’s possible that the experiential thank-you note1 I sent him after our second date was too much. Or that I shouldn’t have brought him back to the treehouse I was living in.2 Or that he’d been abducted by Scientologists and could no longer speak to me. Whatever, I had to know. So, in the most mature way possible, I got wine drunk and politely asked him why he was so obviously ignoring me. He returned with some message about his work being so unreal right now. He even cited specific hours3 and days, then apologized. My first thought: What a psycho I was for expecting someone so immensely burdened to text me back. How could I be so demanding? This man was clearly too busy for words! My next thought: Ugh, I wish I wasn’t drunk so I could say something incredibly smart. But then, I started to wonder: When did we start invoking work to get out of life? Basically, why are we all so busy?
The phenomenon of “peak busy” isn’t constrained to the wild world of men who don’t want to date me. In spite of being a generally honest human, I’m a serial peak busy offender who often creates meetings, looming deadlines and work stresses to get out of doing things I don’t really want to do. Thanks to karma, I’ve been served the busy message in various forms by bosses, coworkers, friends, even Uber drivers. It happens so often that I don’t even question it anymore.4 Just think about how many times you’ve called pulled the professional fire alarm to excuse yourself from a social activity only to sit home and pick your cuticles while looking at Instagram photos.
According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics,5 most of us aren’t really as busy as we lead ourselves and others to believe. As of a 2016 study, even those we think of as busiest tend to have a good amount of breathing space in their lives to say…return a text message to your mom. Most of us work around 42 hours a week and sleep around eight hours a day. If you’re quick with math,6 that equals a surplus of time for leisure pursuits. It’s also no secret our generation is getting married later and having fewer kids. So we’re generally not busy with the things that consumed our parents — i.e. waking up at 7 a.m. to take their future Olympians7 to U-10 soccer practice.
1 It was a thank-you note with an ice cream sandwich, which is the most delightful gift to receive ever from a stranger.
2 I just moved to Los Angeles and had been trying out evocative AirBnB’s before moving into my apartment.
3 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
4 Except when I send angry customer complaint emails to Uber to receive $2 dollar credits.
5 Here’s that study if you’re interested in being busy looking at statistics.
6 I am not.
7 I am also not a current or past Olympian. Disappointing, I know.
Many of the things that used to consume our time and physical energy have been automated or otherwise start-up-ified. Thanks to Amazon, our groceries show up when we exhale. Service-based tech companies like Handy have built VC-backed businesses8 I am also not a current or past Olympian. Disappointing, I know. by making our busy lives less filled with the things we don’t want to do. “Just book a time, and we’ll do the rest,” the site advertises. Yes, please! Take my money, I’m so busy, says me. Even our clothes have started telling us we’re overwhelmed. Brands like ADAY are rethinking wardrobe staples through the lens of our hectic schedules. Because if you haven’t noticed: “Life is busy, fact. And what you’re wearing shouldn’t hold you back.”9
In fact, businesses seem to be constantly reminding us of how starved for free time we are. JetBlue recently dedicated a short film to those who are so insanely busy, they’re “losing their humanity” — which is all of us, right? In a new series of ads, meal replacement brand Soylent’s robotic spokeswoman Trish reassures us that “eating isn’t easy.” But these geniuses aren’t serving up these messages in a cultural vacuum. There’s something about being told we’re so overwhelmed by our to-do lists that we can’t even pause to chew real food that stirs something in us — so much so that we buy into it. (And then broadcast it to the universe, away-message style.10)
Why? Because work is one of the only semi-valid excuses to fall back on. I don’t have kids, who are probably the best scapegoats ever.11 I clearly don’t have a boyfriend or a dog or really any living thing that would require substantial effort. It’s hard to blame my cactus for why I have to skip out on brunch to stay home and drink Soylent in my ‘technically tailored’ leggings. Being busy seems a lot nicer than saying, hey, I would rather not spend my free time with you. I can only assume my former love interest was trying to save me the personal devastation of not wanting to go on a fourth date with me. Because disappointment is messy and weird. Excuses get the job done without hurt feelings so that we can get back to all the things we were trying to do.
If I were a social scientist,12 I would probably cough up some BS about our generation’s over-programmed childhood and the need to find constant validation for the things we do. Busy is, for some, a badge of honor. It smells like success. It legitimates the aforementioned lack of boyfriend, child, dog, plants. It says, I’m doing things that matter so much on a Sunday that I can’t spend time day drinking with you peons.
9 Have not heard a better argument for stretch pants ever, fact. Find it here.
10 Work. Gym. Out. Hit me on my cell.
11 No one ever gets mad at a parent who says, “Sorry. Can’t. Kids.”
12 I’m not.
In other way-harsh words, the invocation of busy is cowardly and shows a lack of confidence about our life choices.
Where am I going with this? He wasn’t busy. He just wasn’t interested in making time for me. And that’s fine.13 I’m not busy. I spend most of my days at a desk, read a lot of Internet and had enough free time left over to write this illuminating essay. I don’t like letting people down and I have a compulsion to make too many plans. Sorry! You’re probably not that busy either. So text your mom back. And the next time you start to make up some meeting that you got pulled into at the last minute. STOP. Literally, no one wants to hear it.
13 Illogical. But fine.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Adam Selman x Le Specs sunglasses.