‘Being busy’ is the ultimate—and most annoying—status symbol in America

Stop telling everyone how 'busy' you are. You're not that important.


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Jun 25, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 11:57 am CDT

How busy have you been lately? Pretty busy, right?

Hold that thought, because whether you’re actually busy or not, there’s now an app that will at the very least make people think you are busy. “Got This Thing” is designed to fill your Google calendar with local events in your area, pulling information from sites like Eventbrite. The app also lets you choose how full you want your calendar to get with three settings, titled “Busy,” “Super Busy,” and “Go F— Yourself.” 

Twenty-nine-year-old comedian Nat Towsen came up with the idea during New York City Comedy Hack Day, which pairs developers and comics together in order to create humorous apps. Although Towsen has joked that he hopes to raise “a trillion dollars” in funding, initial interest in the app is strong, with over a thousand people in 10 different countries having used it so far.

Towsen has said that GTT is for “people who want to avoid doing things,” but while there is certainly a comical aspect to the free app, it also speaks to very recognizable cultural trends. Everyone wants to seem busy these days, no matter how much they really do or do not have going on.

The idea that many Americans’ identities are tied intrinsically to their jobs is nothing new. However, depending on what you read, Americans are either working far more or far less than they ever have before. “Not only are Americans working longer hours than at any time since statistics have been kept, but now they are also working longer than anyone else in the industrialized world,” writes ABC News’ Dean Schabner. 

Everyone wants to seem busy these days, no matter how much they really do or do not have going on.

However, Schabner’s thesis is rejected by Derek Thompson at the Atlantic. “There is little evidence that America, as a country, is working more,” he writes. “Many of us—perhaps most of us—enjoy downtime that would look luxurious to a mid-century time-traveler.”

Regardless of which analysis is actually correct, “being busy” in the modern world is about much more than just how many hours we work. Busyness has become a status symbol of sorts, one that we use to promote our worth to the rest of the world. “Almost everyone I know is busy,” wrote the New York Times’ Tim Kreider in 2012. “They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.”

This makes sense, as common sense would indicate that a good worker is someone who is proactive at and enthused by their job. And yet, the amount of conversation that we all devout to how busy we are can also start to feel oppressive. 

We can’t just be busy anymore, we have to be busier than everyone else; we have to be the busiest. And in that sense, being busy can also start to feel like a competition. 

Mindy Kaling memorably tackled the topic in her 2011 essay collection, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), in a takedown of the Stressed-Out Olympics:

I do not think stress is a legitimate topic of conversation, in public anyway. No one ever wants to hear how stressed out anyone else is, because most of the time, everyone is stressed out. Going on and on in detail about how stressed out I am isn’t conversation. It’ll never lead anywhere. No one is going to say, “Wow, Mindy, you really have it especially bad. I have heard some stories of stress, but this just takes the cake.”

The interesting part of this is that being busy now seems to not only to be a requirement for work, but for our leisure time as well. Sure, the Internet loves to romanticize the concept of laziness, but even in our lazy times, we need to be accomplishing something. We no longer just turn on the TV to wind down, we binge-watch, blowing through episode of episode of our favorite shows like we’re on a quest.

Speaking of the Internet, it’s also hard not to conclude that our digital lives are part of our motivation for convincing people that we are so busy in our “real” ones. There is evidence to suggest that prolonged Facebook use can make you very depressed, and part of this has to do with the upkeep surrounding making others believe that we are always going, always doing something, always having fun, and staying busy in one way or another.

“Being busy” in the modern world is about much more than just how many hours we work. Busyness has become a status symbol of sorts, one that we use to promote our worth to the rest of the world.

Last year, a Dutch woman posted photos from a trip to South East Asia last year, later to reveal that the vacation photos were fake, The woman in question, Zilla van den Born, that the ruse was an experiment intended to juxtapose the lives we really lead with the lives we present to our friends and family. Her sentiment about the discrepancy between these two realities—and the need we feel to perpetuate that—wasn’t exactly revolutionary, but it was astute nonetheless. 

The irony is that her project was just another example of someone trying to show how busy they are and how much they have to say—even if she did so by turning the mirror back on us.

Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with Facebooking, tweeting, and Instagramming your every move. But there is worth in asking why we are so compelled to present ourselves as perpetually busy to one another, no matter of how much we truly interact. “No one wants to commit to shit,” bemoans Aziz Ansari in his latest stand-up special, “because they’re terrified that something better’s gonna come along!” 

This, too, has become a symptom of our obsession with being busy: flakiness. Technology is both a conduit for demonstrating our busy social schedule, and a filter we use to soften the blow when we don’t want to commit. Part of the appeal of Got This Thing surely stems from our desire not to merely blow off plans though the quick, often impersonal touch of a text message, but to present a viable alternative of why those plans just won’t work for us today.

Being busy is good, but only as long as it doesn’t completely take over our lives. We should strive to be busy doing things we love, not just to be busy doing things. And when we become obsessed with the latter, that’s when problems start. It sounds a lot better to say, “I’m busy this weekend,” then to say, “I’ve got nothing going on.” But occasionally, it’s important to leave room for a little nothingness in our schedule, should an opportunity for spontaneity come up.

Got This Thing is a fairly cynical idea, designed to con people into the myth of busyness so that we can free up our schedule as we please. But it’s also right on target, if for no other reason than to demonstrate just how much time we waste telling people that we’re “busy.” 

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He currently lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via Street matt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Share this article
*First Published: Jun 25, 2015, 2:48 pm CDT