On Being “Busy”

by Brenna Holeman


“How are you?”

It’s a seemingly innocent question, and one that, unless you know the person really well, always comes with the same answer.

“I’m good, thanks, how are you?”

Or, perhaps, if you’re having a great week (or you’ve run into an ex), you tweak the answer slightly.

“I’m really good, thanks!” or even “I’m great, thank you.”

Or maybe, if you live in London, or NYC, or Toronto, or just about any other big city in the world, or probably even some smaller cities, too, or perhaps even the countryside, or I guess just everyone I speak to these days, you say this:

“I’m good thanks, super busy,” or “Yeah, good, but really busy,” or “Good, thanks, but so busy I don’t remember the last time I slept for longer than four hours and my back always hurts and sometimes I forget if I’ve eaten lunch so let’s just stand here and laugh for a little while so I can forget about my ever-growing list of things to do and all those unanswered emails.”

OK, so maybe that last one is a slight exaggeration. But over the last few years, I’ve heard myself give some variation of that answer to different people, whether they’re friends, acquaintances, coworkers, or someone in between. I’ve also written about it a lot on this blog. When did I get so obsessed with being so busy?


I believe it started when I moved to London three and a half years ago. Almost immediately, I started a full-time master’s degree and a part-time job, but I was also running this blog and all of its social media, taking on the odd freelancing job, trying to make new friends, date, sightsee in London, and travel abroad once a month. I kept that schedule up for two years, when, upon graduating, I took on a full-time job, upped my freelance work and public speaking engagements, joined entrepreneur groups, and still managed to go out at least three or four times a week with friends or boyfriends, all the while blogging and travelling.

Now don’t get me wrong – I love my life, and I love my work. But part of me feared that if I didn’t do all of that, that if I didn’t have some scrolling list of things I’m working on (I’m going to start blogging more, and redesign my blog, and get more freelance clients, and write a guidebook to East London, and finish editing my first book, and start writing my second book, and go to Italy for a month next year, and join acting classes, and take up jogging, and cook more, all on top of 40+ hours a week at my job) that I would somehow be judged by others to not be ambitious enough, or hardworking enough. That to be busy was a good thing, a thing to be admired.

Because let’s be honest – when we’re telling someone we’re “busy”, what we’re really telling them is this: please see me as someone who is so ambitious and so hardworking and so in demand and so popular that we don’t have time to stop and smell the roses. That’s right. I turned into that jerk who used “I’m busy” as a twisted sort of accomplishment, something to be proud of. “I’m busy” became a humblebrag.

As I mentioned, I really do enjoy being busy, provided I like what I’m doing. I do consider myself to be ambitious, even if sometimes my ambitions manifest themselves as daydreaming. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss just taking it easy, or spending a few days relaxing and recharging my batteries, so to speak. Somehow I became so “busy” that I forgot about the importance of just switching off for a few days; even on the trips I’ve done this year, I was always checking my email, finishing assignments, or worrying that I wasn’t getting enough photos for the blog or social media.


And yes – to spend a few days taking it easy is a privilege, and not everyone has the luxury to do so; there are bills to be paid, kids to look after, and homes to maintain. But I thought about how many of us, from my personal experience in North America and the UK, talk about being busy all the time; that maybe, if you admitted that you spent the entire weekend in your pyjamas binge-watching Black Mirror and eating takeaway, you’d be painted as lazy, or that it takes away some of your hardworking cred. I thought about all of those articles that show how people in America and England don’t take all of their holidays from work for fear of being labelled as not hardworking enough.

And then I thought about my French and my Italian friends who value taking time to relax and enjoy life, whether that be spending time at a coffeeshop with a newspaper or taking an entire evening to complete a meal with family and friends. That, in parts of Europe, to say you’re busy is seen as a negative thing – if you’re busy, how can you be enjoying life? It’s that whole work to live or live to work thing, and I realised I was falling into the latter category.

I was recently invited by Hilton Dalaman to spend a few days at their hotel in Turkey, and those days were full of nothing but relaxation: swimming, sailing, taking hours to eat dinner over long conversations and endless bottles of wine. For four days, I didn’t do any work, barely went online. It was heavenly.

And yes, I came home to an overflowing inbox and overdue assignments, but for those few days, I didn’t worry about being busy. It did wonders for my mind and my body, and I came home feeling refreshed and reenergised. For once, when someone asked how I was, I didn’t say I was busy. I said I felt great, end of sentence.


So now, on the heels of that relaxing trip, I find myself at a crossroads. I obviously can’t jet away to Dalaman every other week (as much as I’d like to). I still have those bills to pay, and so it’s not like I can just quit everything I’m doing; besides that, as mentioned earlier, I like my work.

But I realised I need to start making a conscious effort to be less busy, even if only in words. I realised that nobody is going to judge me if, when I’m asked how I am, I say, “I’m really good, thanks, I’ve had a really relaxing week.” They’re not going to assume I’m not ambitious, or hardworking; if anything, they might be a little bit envious.

I felt so good after Turkey that I realised I need to let some of that trickle into my day-to-day life, too; I need to step away from the computer more, and then, once I’m away from it, actually let my mind switch off in order to be more present in the moment.

Enjoy that glass of wine with a friend without complaining about tomorrow’s deadline.

Go for a walk around the block to clear my mind and take in some fresh air.

Watch a movie without sitting with my laptop on my lap, trying to answer emails at the same time.

Yes, I’m still going to be busy, but I want to embrace the idea of being able to compartmentalise that busyness, of being able to put it away when I need to.

So if you see me anytime soon, ask me how I am.


My many thanks to Hilton Dalaman for inviting me as a guest to their hotel – they really were some of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a very long time. I will be writing more about my time in Turkey soon. 

If you enjoyed this article, you might want to check out On Dreaming, and On Staying Ambitious or The Danger of Someone Else’s Dream.

Do you agree with me – do you often say you’re “busy” as a catch-all answer? How do you unwind or switch off?

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Christine November 7, 2016 - 6:52 pm

I agree, we all need to make time to enjoy life. I hate that I have so many things to do in my life including work and all the mundane tasks like laundry, cleaning, cooking, etc. I just want to stay home and do nothing one weekend. That would be nice 🙂 and I dont care if people judge me as lazy.

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:06 am

I agree, and I try to have those kinds of weekends once in a while! Thanks for your comment, Christine.

Rebecca November 7, 2016 - 8:36 pm

Oh, I love this so much. Busy seems to equate to a life well lived, but that’s not the case at all, busy holds so many different meanings that it shouldn’t.

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:01 am

Totally agree – busy does not necessarily mean “happy” or “fulfilled”!

Sarah November 7, 2016 - 8:54 pm

I love this so much! I’m a freelance translator, and some of the others I know seem to wear it almost as a badge of honour that they work on the weekends as well – the implication being that so many people want to work with them that they couldn’t possibly do it all during the week. Granted I have no dependents, so don’t need to earn as much as some of them, but I prefer to spend my weekends reading, watching films, exercising and travelling. When I took a month off to travel earlier this year, some people I know were shocked that I didn’t take my computer with me to do some work.

Of course we have to earn money or we couldn’t do anything, but you only live once and I don’t want to spend it all sat behind a desk 🙂

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:07 am

I totally get that “badge of honour” thing, and I’m trying so hard to stay away from that mentality. I agree that I don’t want to live my life sitting behind a computer… even though that’s all I seem to do these days in London!

Danny November 7, 2016 - 10:19 pm

I really enjoyed reading a more lifestyle-post for a change! I think it’s important to have goals and something to work towards. But being busy for the sake of being busy? Well, I’m with you there. 😉

Glad to hear you enjoyed your time in Turkey. I could use some sun and swimming right about now…

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:02 am

Thank you so much, Danny! I want to write more of these kinds of posts in the future.

Korii November 7, 2016 - 11:15 pm

I can completely relate to this. I have a tendency to rush around and busy myself with a million things because it makes me feel like I’m actually doing something with my life. However I have suffered the consequences of this, namely in the form of breakdowns and burn outs. I’ve definitely slowed down a lot more now and not feeling so guilty if I just want to spend all day Sunday in bed or on the couch.

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:10 am

That’s awesome that you’ve slowed down… I am definitely trying to do the same. Thanks for the comment, Korii!

Paige November 7, 2016 - 11:51 pm

I am also so guilty of saying this. It’s funny how it’s like both a badge of honor and an excuse to sometimes not elaborate. Or maybe it’s defensive and competitive even? (And also the most annoying thing for a guy to say via text when you’re trying to make plans–I digress, ha.) At this point in my life I also have the whole “fear of missing out” going on, especially in the city where there’s always! Something! To do! For me, just reading for pleasure is the best way to recharge (novels or blogs), or coloring, or watching TV or a movie. I’m still working on balancing ambition with leisure and mental health recharge time. As always (I think I always say this) completely loved and related to the post!

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:11 am

Thank you so much, Paige! Yes, I am trying to find all those ways of recharging… anything that does not include a computer, pretty much. I need to get outdoors more, I think…

LC November 7, 2016 - 11:57 pm

Ha! I wonder about this on the regular too. Figured it was due to the London pace of life, but it does seem to be a worldwide epidemic.

The Europeans have got the right of it. There’s no rewards for being busy. It’s a shame we have to make an effort to stop, relax and unwind, but I agree that the payoffs are worth it!

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:12 am

Yes, agreed, the payoffs are so worth it! Thanks for the comment as always. 🙂

Ella November 8, 2016 - 12:15 am

I love this post so much and I’m glad that someone’s calling bullpoo on it all. Honestly, I think it’s actually quite sick and twisted that as a society, we value hard work and being busy so much that we’re okay with exhausting ourselves and ruining our health and happiness. That we somehow think that that’s a good thing and even something to be proud of. I’ve always been a go-go-go kind of person, very ambitious and very driven, which are things that I love about myself. But too many times I have worked myself to the bone and run mysellf to the ground, exhausted and burnt out. Thinking that that was a good thing because that showed my ambition and drive. But last year after yet another burn out, I realized that reaching any goal that I have isn’t worth sacrificing my health and my happiness for along the way. So now, I take things much slower and I’ve been MUCH better for it 🙂 I’m actually enjoying the process of achieving my goals and funnily enough, I actually find that I’m more productive because I’m not wasting time and energy stressing haha. Anyways, brilliant post 🙂 x

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:14 am

Thank you so much, Ella. I totally agree with your comment! I am also trying to slow down a lot… and yes, it’s making me much more productive. 🙂

Nina Lee: World into Words November 8, 2016 - 11:07 am

YES!!! This is EXACTLY how I’m feeling, coming from NY. I moved back to Spain to get away from that incessant work lifestyle, but here in Madrid, I’m still doing the same thing. Trying to explore the city, travel, work and do all of my blog work, plus networking, social media, etc., etc., etc. I’ve run myself into the ground as I always do, but that’s the only way I can feel proud and successful. I think you’re right, though. Taking it one day at a time seems a bit more manageable. I keep telling myself to think small in terms of relaxing because if I think of the bigger picture I just get stressed about relaxing, haha.

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:17 am

I know that feeling – getting stressed about relaxing, hah. Thanks a lot for your comment, Nina.

Linda November 8, 2016 - 3:00 pm

Brenna, I hear you. You know we share a similar sense of “needing” to achieve certain goals and beating ourselves up if it’s not happening fast enough. But I’m slowly learning, like you, that it’s the quiet times – the times when we force myself to just be still – that the most creativity rushes in. It stays away when our heads are so full of “I have to” and “I should” and that horrible grinding fear of being behind, right? Thanks for another great thought-provoking post. You have spoken to the masses!

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:06 am

Thank you so much! And yes, we’re totally alike in these ways. I wish I could just relax without thinking, “I should be doing this” or “I should be using this time better”.

Ashley November 8, 2016 - 9:39 pm

I can completely relate to your sentiments! Since I moved to Edinburgh, I’ve been working full-time, blogging and freelancing in my spare time, trying to continually explore Edinburgh, travel around Scotland, and frequently take trips to continental Europe – and as much as I love it, I hate feeling like I have no down time. I love what you said about ‘being able to put it away when you need to’- I’m still trying to find that balance!

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:05 am

I’m trying to find that balance, too… but I took today to just watch movies and write, and it felt so good.

Tash November 9, 2016 - 1:20 pm

I think you’re underselling marathoning Black Mirror as the easy option! :p I watched it all the evening it came out and it made my brain hurt, made me afraid of everything and gave me very odd dreams :s

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:02 am

Ha ha – this is true. There were some terrifying episodes…

Ruth November 9, 2016 - 10:52 pm

Yes this is so true! I definitely try not to say I’m busy now when someone asks how I am – or what I’ve been doing.

I’ve definitely said I’m busy before though when what I perhaps should have said was something more like my life has been very full recently. Because it’s not necessarily that I’ve been busy with lots of boring or negative things, I’ve just filled my time with outings and experiences. The rush of life in cities can lend itself to feeling like you should be busy all the time, when it’s equally nice to have some time to yourself to watch TV or take a long bath. Everything in moderation! 🙂

Brenna Holeman November 11, 2016 - 2:03 am

I think that’s great – “my life has been very full recently”. I agree that we need to take everything in moderation, too… I’m trying not to think a day is ‘wasted’ if I didn’t do very much with it.

Liba November 12, 2016 - 7:48 pm

Having grown up in NYC, I think I’m permanently busy, even now that I live half way across the world. Just posted about how it is super important to find simple, local ways to take a break 🙂

Brenna Holeman November 18, 2016 - 12:48 am

Totally agree – I need more simplicity in my life, too!

Jacquie November 14, 2016 - 7:50 pm

This post is fantastic, I just read something similar on The Financial Diet so I wonder if it’s getting to be a bit of a trending topic.

I used to have a couple extroverted friends who made me feel pathetic for not keeping up with them. Now that I’m approaching my 30’s, I SPEND MY TIME HOW I WANT!!! I don’t have big career aspirations, and I deal with depression and migraines. My weekends now are spent running, doing yoga, cooking and baking, reading, and watching movies/documentaries. It is WONDERFUL.

Then when I do have plans for coffee or dinner, or my boyfriend gets a day off and we can go hiking together, it feels like a real treat.

As far as the extra “work” side goes, I just spend energy working on myself as a person and getting myself well enough to function at my full time job. I don’t have a side hustle right now and yeah a lot of people would say I could “work harder”, but like I said, I do what I want now 🙂

Brenna Holeman November 18, 2016 - 12:50 am

Oh cool, I’ll have to try to find that article!

Um, and YES… spending time how you want is so amazing! I definitely feel less pressure now that I’m in my 30s. I just took a day to do nothing and it was so amazing, you’re right.

Thanks for your comment, Jacquie!

SB December 21, 2016 - 9:40 pm

In England we get a minimum of 4-5 weeks holiday per year and no one will judge you for using it all up, in fact it’s expected and you get warned when your holiday is about to run out, unlike in America where you probably are shamed for using your holiday, With this we’re more like the Europeans.

Brenna Holeman December 22, 2016 - 3:43 am

I’m Canadian and I live in England, and so am writing this from my experience living in London for the past four years… I definitely hear a lot of my friends and coworkers saying exactly what I’ve outlined here. I think it varies a lot across the country. 🙂

Zalie January 8, 2017 - 10:54 pm

My favourite days are those when I literally have NOTHING to do ( although they are few and far between), but it is so hard to find the time to do so! I think particularly in the Western world our society puts a lots of pressure on us to go go go all the time!

Brenna Holeman January 9, 2017 - 8:29 pm

Yep, totally! Having those days to just relax and not stress out about anything are the best. I want more of them… especially with you! xo

Zalie January 11, 2017 - 4:23 am

Me too sister xoxo

MaryPat November 15, 2017 - 12:47 am

We have a three-week cruise coming up in a few weeks. Seven sea days leisurely port stops. I’ve downloaded ten books and plan to be totally lazy!


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