Women’s News: How ‘Busy’ Became A Toxic Word


Nell Minow

Co-owner and board member, GMI Ratings

There is one four-letter word I have permanently banned from my own vocabulary and from that of anyone speaking to me because it is so profoundly toxic to personal and professional growth.

The word? “Busy.”

I live in Washington, where perhaps more than any other city in the world, busy-ness is a more important signifier of status than money. The polite greeting, “How are you?” is almost invariably answered with “Busy!” Sometimes it is said with a smile, sometimes with a bit of faux self-deprication or a head-shake, but it is always a humblebrag assertion of the speaker’s importance — and the relative unimportance of the person they are talking to.

More important, the word short-circuits any genuine interaction. A “busy” response to “How are you?” means, “So, if you have anything to say to me, say it fast, because I have more important things to do. And don’t even think of asking me to do something or go somewhere because I have just told you I am more than fully committed.”

Even worse is the reply to any invitation, whether professional, social or civic, “I’m too busy.” What that really means is, “What you are asking me to do is not a priority for me and I am not willing to be honest with you or myself about it.” “Busy” is so easy to use as an excuse that it becomes unthinking. We use it on autopilot to deflect others, not realizing that it interferes with the essential task of taking responsibility for our choices. “Busy” is how the urgent distracts us from the important. “Busy” is a too-easy answer and a too-lazy excuse. It does not provide any information to the person you use it to and it cuts off their opportunity to tell you something you might want or need to hear.

It is a challenge because it is so universal, but I promise that if you eliminate this word from your life, you will instantly, permanently and powerfully be more conscious about your choices and more effective in your communication with others. When you stop describing yourself as busy, you will also feel more in control of your schedule and you will open yourself up to ideas and opportunities that are closer to where you want to be than the quotidian clutter that makes us feel so “busy.”

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