The Disease of Being Busy

Thursday, November 6, 2014 - 5:56 am

The Disease of Being Busy

I saw a dear friend a few days ago. I stopped by to ask her how she was doing, how her family was. She looked up, voice lowered, and just whimpered: “I’m so busy… I am so busy… have so much going on.”

Almost immediately after, I ran into another friend and asked him how he was. Again, same tone, same response: “I’m just so busy… got so much to do.”

The tone was exacerbated, tired, even overwhelmed.

And it’s not just adults. When we moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, we were thrilled to be moving to a city with a great school system. We found a diverse neighborhood, filled with families. Everything felt good, felt right.

After we settled in, we went to one of the friendly neighbors, asking if their daughter and our daughter could get together and play. The mother, a really lovely person, reached for her phone and pulled out the calendar function. She scrolled… and scrolled… and scrolled. She finally said: “She has a 45-minute opening two and half weeks from now. The rest of the time it’s gymnastics, piano, and voice lessons. She’s just…. so busy.”

Horribly destructive habits start early, really early.

How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?

Whatever happened to a world in which kids get muddy, get dirty, get messy, and heavens, get bored? Do we have to love our children so much that we overschedule them, making them stressed and busy — just like us?

What happened to a world in which we can sit with the people we love so much and have slow conversations about the state of our heart and soul, conversations that slowly unfold, conversations with pregnant pauses and silences that we are in no rush to fill?

How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?

Somewhere we read, “The unexamined life is not worth living… for a human.” How are we supposed to live, to examine, to be, to become, to be fully human when we are so busy?

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing. It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.

Since the 1950s, we have had so many new technological innovations that we thought (or were promised) would make our lives easier, faster, simpler. Yet, we have no more “free” or leisurely time today than we did decades ago.

For some of us, the “privileged” ones, the lines between work and home have become blurred. We are on our devices. All. The. Freaking. Time.

Smart phones and laptops mean that there is no division between the office and home. When the kids are in bed, we are back online.

One of my own daily struggles is the avalanche of email. I often refer to it as my jihad against email. I am constantly buried under hundreds and hundreds of emails, and I have absolutely no idea how to make it stop. I’ve tried different techniques: only responding in the evenings, not responding over weekends, asking people to schedule more face-to-face time. They keep on coming, in volumes that are unfathomable: personal emails, business emails, hybrid emails. And people expect a response — right now. I, too, it turns out… am so busy.

The reality looks very different for others. For many, working two jobs in low-paying sectors is the only way to keep the family afloat. Twenty percent of our children are living in poverty, and too many of our parents are working minimum wage jobs just to put a roof over their head and something resembling food on the table. We are so busy.

The old models, including that of a nuclear family with one parent working outside the home (if it ever existed), have passed away for most of us. We now have a majority of families being single families, or where both parents are working outside the home. It is not working.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

In many Muslim cultures, when you want to ask them how they’re doing, you ask: in Arabic, Kayf haal-ik? or, in Persian, Haal-e shomaa chetoreh? How is your haal?

What is this haal that you inquire about? It is the transient state of one’s heart. In reality, we ask, “How is your heart doing at this very moment, at this breath?” When I ask, “How are you?” that is really what I want to know.

I am not asking how many items are on your to-do list, nor asking how many items are in your inbox. I want to know how your heart is doing, at this very moment. Tell me. Tell me your heart is joyous, tell me your heart is aching, tell me your heart is sad, tell me your heart craves a human touch. Examine your own heart, explore your soul, and then tell me something about your heart and your soul.

Tell me you remember you are still a human being, not just a human doing. Tell me you’re more than just a machine, checking off items from your to-do list. Have that conversation, that glance, that touch. Be a healing conversation, one filled with grace and presence.

Put your hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and connect with me for one second. Tell me something about your heart, and awaken my heart. Help me remember that I too am a full and complete human being, a human being who also craves a human touch.

I teach at a university where many students pride themselves on the “study hard, party hard” lifestyle. This might be a reflection of many of our lifestyles and our busy-ness — that even our means of relaxation is itself a reflection of that same world of overstimulation. Our relaxation often takes the form of action-filled (yet mindless) films, or violent and face-paced sports.

I don’t have any magical solutions. All I know is that we are losing the ability to live a truly human life.

We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.

W. B. Yeats once wrote:

“It takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on a battlefield.”

How exactly are we supposed to examine the dark corners of our soul when we are so busy? How are we supposed to live the examined life?

I am always a prisoner of hope, but I wonder if we are willing to have the structural conversation necessary about how to do that, how to live like that. Somehow we need a different model of organizing our lives, our societies, our families, our communities.

I want my kids to be dirty, messy, even bored — learning to become human. I want us to have a kind of existence where we can pause, look each other in the eye, touch one another, and inquire together: Here is how my heart is doing? I am taking the time to reflect on my own existence; I am in touch enough with my own heart and soul to know how I fare, and I know how to express the state of my heart.

How is the state of your heart today?

Let us insist on a type of human-to-human connection where when one of us responds by saying, “I am just so busy,” we can follow up by saying, “I know, love. We all are. But I want to know how your heart is doing.”

Share Post


is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads an educational tour every summer to Turkey, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trip is open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Chrissi Matusevics

    we used to do well until gradually all our so called labour saving devices began to break down including the washing machine spin dryer and heating boiler- now I spend more time on washing clothes bedding and such than ever I did online even though I did online surveys to make money now time is a precious jewel to be saved and treasured

  • Blake Poland

    Thank-you for this piece. Important. Timely. Necessary. I wonder, though, beyond the structural dynamics, is it possible we are too busy to “examine the dark corners of our own souls” precisely because most of us don’t really want to go there? In other words, is all this busyness, in part, a flight from shadow? Is it any wonder, in that context, that folks like Trump show up as mighty projections of our collectively exiled shadow, to remind us of what we have tried to ignore or repress? Just saying…

    • Chinmaya

      Hi Blake, you shared my exact thoughts? Indeed, you must be reading my heart! 🙂

    • Diana Dominique

      So very true

  • Pingback: Resolutions for a healthy mind : Banfield Agency()

  • Yep, It is really a disease. I know someone who don’t have job but they continuously saying that he is busy. Your post was well described. I really enjoyed reading your post.

  • jkimbr

    This is so great. I’ve been asking the same question for several years now. Why am I living like this and how do I stop?

  • Pingback: Do Ho Suh: getting personal with displacement – ReinventIngrid()

  • NancyLG

    Today I needed to read this again. Thank you!

  • Pingback: We Want to be Truly Human | Media Chaplaincy New Zealand()

  • Pingback: A time for compassion – Liz Norell()

  • Reading this made me realize how robotic we have become , its true, now days we are so busy with things as if we are programed to do such and that is all we do :/

  • Dolocom

    Thank you so much for this refelection. I knew this “busy” until I lost my job November 2016! I was advised by a person close to me to “hurry up and get another job”, as if what I did for a living defined me as a productive member of society and someone important. Being busy was becoming unbearable as I was stressed and not able to find time to look for other work or ponder the meaning of my life and my heart. Actually I didn’t have time to think about my heart at all. I was just the hamster on the wheel of life and thought this was so important.

    I have since learned after being unemployed for almost 3 months now that it’s not important to stay busy and find the next best job just to be stressed and make money. I realized that money is not as important as my heart and redefining what is most important and to pay attention to what I want to create my life to be. Having the time to reflect and do nothing is more critical than ever in this fast paced world.

    It’s been an amazing revelation to be relaxed and enjoying whatever pace I want right now. To enjoy time that can never be replaced by money is so precious to me. There are times I feel guilty about not working and then realize I have been working most of my adult life and never had time to jump off the rat race and think about changing directions.

    My heart is defrosting and able to feel the pain and joy of my life up to now. The death of my father 23 years ago, the death of a dear co-worker 5 years ago and the death of my mom 8 years ago, the heart breaking pain of relationships not working, and then the loss of my job of 17 years with the same doctor. All these life events we must just pretend never happened and carry on with busy, busy, busy. We are expected to bury our feelings and ignore our hearts screaming and yearning for connection.

    My heart finally has time to dream of the possibilities ahead and create them.

    When do we become less distracted and more connected to one another and especially ourselves? Thanks for listening to my heart.

    • Kathleen

      Thank you Dolocom – soon I will be done working – choosing not to ‘get another job’ right away and your reflection made me breathe easier. Sometimes it is ok and other times I am terrified.

    • Kendra Henning

      Thank you Dolocom and Kathleen. Effective June 1st I will not be working for the first time since I was 14 years old (today I’m 45). I’ve been both a hard working employee, and an even harder working entrepreneur. My life has always been my to-do list. Losing both of my parents before age 40 was a horrible wake-up call. It’s taken me a long time to understand that there are no extra credit points awarded to the Most Busy Person. It’s not a badge of honor. Have you ever noticed that the folks who love to tell you how busy and overwhelmed and overworked they are are not only the Most Busy Person, but they’re often also the Most Unpleasant/Unhappy Person? I’m very fortunate that this “time-out” has been my own decision. It’s all at once exciting and terrifying. Every day I battle with making decisions about my next career move vs. taking just a bit of a breath to think hard about what I want to do next in my life. I want to explore all options, not just the obvious ones. What small part can I play in making the world a better place? How can I do a better job of giving the people I love the attention they deserve and deeply enjoying more moments in this precious life? Time will tell…

  • Naila Farooq Pathak

    Beautiful article and so true. I feel that when someone asks you how you’re doing ( or how are you ), if you don’t say “I’m so busy” , you are being judged. But I’m happy to say I’m not. Its just a matter of priorities. Some parents feel that they should keep their children busy all the time so as to prevent them from getting into trouble. It could also be that they feel they are providing their children with everything they can and in doing so being “there” but not really being there.
    On another note, Is the picture “the Rundetaarn” in Copenhagen ?

  • Pingback: Chocolate Cashew Spread - Rough Measures()

  • Pingback: Being busy as a status symbol – Belinda Bien()

  • What a beautifully written article and my pet peeve is that people can find the time to go to someone’s funeral, but can’t find the same time to spend quality time with them while they are alive! This is something sadly, I don’t think I will every understand! Sharing you article today and How is the state of your heart today?

    • Sonya King

      Funerals are not for the person that passed but the people they left behind.

  • Camille Strate

    Exquisite. Thank you for your eloquence and authentic compassion. Peace to you and yours ~

  • HelloKat

    it’s impossible to be not busy. If you’re not busy, you’re lazy. Get money/successful or get left. No one’s gonna handhold you. If you think money is not as important, how you gonna survive? You people sound unambitious and give up on becoming successful. Get left and people like me will take the job/girl/life you wanted.

    • StillHoping

      Go for it – it’s all yours. Perhaps in time you’ll get where people are coming from.

      • HelloKat

        I don’t need to know where people are coming from but the fact that you’re experiencing this and coming to this conclusion is wrong. Get left! Find happiness while stay productive. This article is for people who sound too lazy to deal with this problem and giving such a weird excuse.

        • MC

          It is very possible to not be busy. You can not be busy and still be a very productive, successful person.You are missing the point. Its not saying don’t be ambitious and have goals in your life. Its saying that being busy is not how we should we be defining our life. Who are you to tell someone else that their experience is wrong. Its THEIR experience. Like still hoping said “perhaps in time you’ll get where people are coming from”. Sounds like you could use some serious time to reflect on your own existence. Sending you love and peace,

    • Sunshine

      Hello Kat, My heart goes out to you. I’m guessing you are fairly young. I myself got cought up in the, do more, be more mentality at great sacrifice. I sacrificed my relationships with my spouse, kids, family, friends and myself. I was so focused on the, do more, be more and yes make more money lifestyle that I became blind to the impact that was having on those I love. I learned that I was telling them that everything else was more important than them. I unfortunately also wasn’t taking care of myself body, sole or mind either. My kids would call me zombie mom because my long hours at work and doing everything the “world” tells us we should have and accomplish would leave me drained with no time for them. My, “come to Jesus moment” was when someone at work asked my oldest son (early teens at the time) if he was going to be like his mom when he grows up?” And his response was,”heck, no, my Mom’s never home”. That was about 5 years ago. As a previous response (Dolocom) put it, “my heart is defrosting”. I have the same job title but have changed the to a department that allows shorter workdays and more flexible hours that allow me to nurture the relationships that I value most. That being said, it was and is very important for me to stop and reevaluate my priorities, and to stop the glorification of “busy” in order to give my time and attention to the things I most value (and those things aren’t things at all) they are things like family, individual relationships, spirituality, learning, giving back, supporting the things I believe in and nurturing all these things. Stepping out of the rst race and valuing what is worth to be valued is a noble venture. I have learned that putting pride, money, social standing, job title, or possessions before the things that truly add value to my life are not worthy of the top of my priorities list.

      • Kendra Henning

        Couldn’t agree more. I’ve been there too, and I’m slowly making changes to be less…busy. There has to be a better word for it. I love to work hard and be involved. That’s not the same as the “busy” we’re all talking about here…

  • Pingback: Quiet | This Is She()

  • Pingback: 我很忙 – If Clouds Know()

  • Pingback: Vikend branja: navdih za manj – MANJ.SI()

  • Emma Lovell

    Love this! Thank you. I really despise when someone asks me “How are you?” and I respond “busy”. I’ve asked people to keep me in check and if I respond with that answer to ask me again, “No, How are YOU”. It’s important. Thanks!

    P.s. It’s a saturday and I was working through my to-do list. I’m going to go and hug my boyfriend.

  • Donald Dump

    I owe a special debt of gratitude for the author of this piece. We need to reflect on our own existence, spread love much more than creating worldly possesions.

  • SMH

    I’ve seen a video presentation once about the future..It said, in the future people will be implanted chips in the brain to be able to cope up. I too do not understand why the children are stressed these days. They have so many books and subjects in school. Lessons are very hard that having a tutor is a necessity and they have to be into music and sports as well.

    • Suman

      I totally agree, why kids are not treated as kids anymore. we expect them to work like a scheduled program. I don’t see kids playing out mud, exploring nature, collecting sticks, rocks, playing in sand. From age three they have full day schedule starting from 7 till they go to bed. we decide whom to play and even for playing need to set play date in controlled monitored environment. Sometimes I feel where are we going with this and what are we teaching our kids. Special thanks to author to put all these in words in one place which have been going through many minds. Hope this will be carried one step further, free from technologies and interact with people. These questions are going in my mind all the time
      How did we end up living like this? Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we do this to our children? When did we forget that we are human beings, not human doings?

  • Pingback: Giving and Recieving - Brigid's Grove()

  • Pingback: 60 Days In - STORIES FROM SCHOOL AZ()

  • Pingback: Getting myself off the wheel and back into life… | She Nurtures Business()

  • Pingback: Connection – alyxberesfordlisw()

  • Shoumi Dasgupta

    Very insightful warm and inspiring.

  • Pingback: How is Your Heart? – The Tall and Short of It()

  • alka

    Good article thanks! not having ones car licence for 6months certainly reminds me how I enjoy just being , being at home, pottering about, taking long walks on the beach checking out the crab activity with my grandson…longer conversations with loved ones..time spent examining dark soul corners over the years and the fruits are now… being happy to be alone with myself and my art and love with no expectation…

  • Pingback: “I don’t have time to feel better” | Roanna Mitchell()

  • Evalee Kieffer

    This is my continual internal railing against. I refuse to allow mindless exhaustive doing to infiltrate my life & home. It is a continual battle to block the unnecessary, but a battle worth fighting. I want to look back on my life & see I wasn’t just programmed & doing but instead I was being & breathing & feeling & seeing. I hope my legacy to my children is that they learn the value of it & live it as well.

  • Lev Raphael

    It’s more and more to take time away from all our devices (he said while typing a comment on a blog). And why anything that can unhook us from the quotidian is crucial. I find time with my dogs healing and “un-busy”–walking them, caring for them, playing with them or watching them play together is time out of time.

  • Gig Miller

    You’re observation is so true and one that I noticed many years ago, but it is even worse today. And you’re right, everyone is on their devices constantly. Even in my gym, I look around, and at any given time 30% of the people there are staring at their phone. They can’t put them down and leave them in their locker for one hour or so. They feel they have to constantly be in connection and available to everyone. Go anywhere and observe people, whether it’s in a shopping mall, park, restaurant, etc., and everyone is gazing into their little electronic gods, totally oblivious to what is going on around them. It really is sickening.

  • Pingback: Taking the "busy" out of Bizzieliving - Bizzie Living()

  • Pingback: Ginger Rum Fizz Cocktail Recipe | The Hungry Hutch()

  • Cyndi Soderlund

    I think about this quite a bit. My husband and I own a business in a small town. We don’t make a ton of money, but enough to keep us fed, housed, clothed and take some trips every year. A few times a year, we are extremely busy, but most times I can take quite a bit of time for myself. Sometimes I think that I should be more hectic and busy, as if I am lazy not doing enough because I am not moving 18 hours a day. Then I look around at our friends who are running themselves and their children ragged so that, respectively, they can make more money and be more “successful” and I am thankful for the path I have taken. I have learned to cherish the quiet, “boring” time. 🙂

  • Rebecca Morrison

    Children are born to experience life, to taste lemons, smell fresh baked bread, listen to spring birds chirping, play in nature etc. Families today have them so programmed (busy) that they are little automatons, with batteries that we recharge every night and then repeat…repeat… Just like us their parents.
    How do we step off the vortex of DOING everything now, and more, and better?? This is the KEY. WE MUST be awake to essence TO LIFE. We can be heart awakened when we become conscious of doing just that. Busyness is an attempt to escape the vulnerable moments of heart ache. I am certain that many of us are so busy because we don’t know what to DO about our lack of connection, our pain. Choosing to become vulnerable to openness of heart is a real clear step .
    When we choose honest, genuine, openness of heart, then we can truly live the human experience. Working hard or not!!

  • Tonki Honks

    Years back and shortly after I moved to this country I stoped greeting/asking people “How are you” as I always got an answer for what they were doing and not being.

  • Pingback: Clean Out Your Dead! | Xi'an, Xi More()

  • Harry Hui

    A great reminder. Just one thing… You mentioned that to cope with your emails, you asked people “to schedule more face-to-face” meetings. If they had done that, wouldn’t that make them busier (than writing a short email) and also make you busier (than give a brief email reply)?

  • Pingback: 21. gadsimta ”modernā slimība”’- aizņemtība()

  • shelani

    I loved it!. The article captures what is truly amiss in our lives… To be without being busy .

  • Pingback: In Slowness, Sweetness | Christy McKenzie – Yoga, Mindfulness and the Art of Radiant Living()

  • Pingback: The Fresh Air and Sunshine of Resurrection | On Being()

  • Tina Turk

    I noticed that people from US often ask ‘how are you doing’. Perhaps they should go back to ‘how are you’ or change it into ‘how are you being’.

  • Pingback: The Risk of NOT Being Busy - A Wish Come Clear()

  • Oddlady

    Thank you – and here I am reading and commenting 6 months later! My life was like that, until my mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer 25 years ago. I quit work to care for her, and in doing that discovered the deep vulnerability and beauty of life. We said things that we’d never been able to say to each other, I helped plan her funeral and brought our far-flung family together to spend time with her before she died. I did return to work 9 months after she died, but it was never the same. Later, I did contract work and again cared for my drug addict younger brother and my twin brother, through their failing health and then death. I learnt to trust my dreams, connect with people around the world and to be utterly human, with no need for the latest bling/technology. I retired early, exhausted by recent deaths, but not exhausted by Life. I discovered eternal love, humility, and grace in the quiet times, and the gnosis that I had a soul, and my heart still knew its connections to Nature and God/Allah. Peace be with you: salaam, shalom.