The Dirtiest Four-Letter Word

I have a confession to make. I am in favor of profanity.

There are no bad words, I tell my kids, only bad intent. And the catharsis of a well-placed expletive is sometimes worth the risk of offense. But language does matter. The words we choose do not just reflect the state of our minds. They have the power to change it.

This is why I am convinced that “busy” is the dirtiest word in the English language. It is the modern signifier of the “quiet desperation” that Thoreau observed was a defining trait of many people’s lives. And, just like with other four-letter words, its corrosive effect on our psyches is found in the intention with which we tend to use it. As humorist Tim Kreider writes in his essay, Lazy: A Manifesto, “It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”

I’m SO busy…

I can’t. I’m swamped…

My clients keep emailing me…

Too busy. Haven’t had the time…

Indeed, many of us wear our busy-ness like a red badge of courage. We are strangely proud of it and even congratulate each other for it. So it is no wonder that many of us have come to tie our worth as attorneys, investment bankers, engineers or business owners to how busy we are.

And it is not limited to the realm of work. When asked how their summer vacations were, at least three parents at our daughters’ back-to-school event last September reflexively began their responses with, “Busy…”

I get it. Our responsibilities can feel overwhelming at times. But the danger is that this word—busy—is altering how we choose to value and apportion our time. And whether we even see it as a choice.

It is worth noting, as Kreider points out, that it is not minimum wage workers holding down three jobs to make ends meet that talk about being busy. Busy-ness is a “distinctly upscale affliction,” he remarks, “…most often [cited] by people whose lamented busy-ness is purely self-imposed—work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily…They’re busy because they’re addicted to busy-ness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

We have all experienced how busy-ness tends to excuse procrastination on what we would like to be our priorities. What we face in its absence are the things we suspect matter more to our present and future success, health and happiness.

Why haven’t I written and published that article?

When will I call that prospective client?

How can I follow through on my commitment to get to the gym twice a week?

What is the most I have slept on consecutive nights in the past month?

When is the last time I spent a worry-free day with my spouse? Kids? Friends?

When was the last time I meditated, prayed or just sat in quiet contemplation for 10 minutes?

When we repeatedly and instinctively allow busy-ness to stand in for making an impact and cite lack of time as an excuse for not taking care of our most valued priorities, we train ourselves to accept the “quiet desperation” of quantity over quality. We convince each other that our obligations are necessary evils to be endured bravely. And we teach our kids that none of this is really a choice; that they, too, are at the effect of the world around them rather than responsible for creating the reality they wish to inhabit.

For these reasons, I have been working to banish “busy” from my vocabulary and my work. I am choosing my words more carefully and purposefully making time for what matters most. And when I can’t figure out what matters most, I do my best to find a quiet place (the bedroom, the car, heck, the toilet, if that’s what it takes) to sit still for a few minutes and do nothing at all.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice. It is as indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body. And deprived of it, we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections, and waiting for the wild, summer lightning strikes of inspiration. It is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.

–Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing

What is one thing you can do today to be less “busy” and more purposeful with your time? How might your clients, firm, business and/or family benefit from a shift in your priorities?


A version of this post originally appeared on Brian’s blog, Against the Grain.

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