Communication

Being "Busy" Isn't An Excuse

Photo by Chris Goldberg under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

I hear (and use) this excuse all the time:

I’m sorry I couldn’t ________, I’ve been so busy lately.

We’re All Busy

When you say, “I’ve been busy,” do you know what you’re really saying?

To me, there’s a hidden message. It hear it as, I’m working more than you.

And that could be true, but there’s a problem.

We live in a world where a balance between work and life is (or, at least, is becoming) more important than work or status.

Balance means the two (work and life) are on a level playing field. They are equally important. Being busy really just means you are doing something. And frankly, breathing is doing something, so we’re all busy.

So, here’s how that classic excuse is really translated in today’s language:

I’m sorry I couldn’t ________, I was doing something that was more important.

We need a new excuse.

A New Excuse

I was serious when I said I hear that phrase (someone couldn’t do something because they were busy) from people on a regular basis. I even say it sometimes (GASP!).

While someone’s time may be financially more valuable than another’s, humanitarianism teaches us it’s never qualitatively more valuable.

Here’s an excerpt from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

If everyone is equal, then everyone’s time is equally important, right?

When you choose where to spend your time, all you’re really doing is choosing your priorities. And, guess what? It’s okay to have priorities.

So just be honest. You had a prior engagement. You had priorities you had to finish. Or maybe, just maybe, you let something slip through the cracks. Admitting guilt can be humanizing and acceptable, as long as you only screw up occasionally.

Take the honesty approach. Let everyone involved in the situation operate on the same page. Life is better that way.

Honesty Can Hurt

It can be difficult to be honest because honesty can be painful to the one receiving the message.

There’s really no way to get around the idea that the thing that didn’t get done didn’t get done because your thing isn’t as important as this other thing. That can be tough to hear.

What should you do?

If the thing that didn’t happen should have been more important, then you screwed up. Just admit it and learn from it.

If the thing that didn’t happen really wasn’t more important to you, then who cares? That other person needs to get over it. Honest scenarios work themselves out much better than conniving and deceiving ones. Don’t be mean, but tell it like it is (sometimes more gently than others).

When You Look Bad

But what if it’s at work and someone not doing something is negatively affecting your reputation?

That’s why the universe invented bosses. If you’re not the forgetter, and the forgetter is hurting your reputation, then be straightforward with that person first. If they don’t listen, go over their head. That’s not deceiving. You’ve been honest, but you need to finish your priorities, and you need your work to represent you.

When You Can’t Control Priorities

What if you really can’t control your priorities? What if you really wanted to do that thing, but just couldn’t, because something out of your control stole your time away?

I’m sympathetic to this. Anything that affects putting food on a table, keeping a roof over your head, or keeping your family safe/happy/comfortable should always be a priority. All you can do in these situations is be honest.

Preparing For The Unexpected

What about unplanned items that need to jump to the top of your to-do list?

They are going to happen. They always do.

Schedule the things you know you have to do. Save them in your calendar. Keep your appointments.

But, what’s more important is that you leave some free time. Read this right. I’m not saying leave leisure time on your calendar. I’m saying leave space on your calendar for unexpected tasks. You will never get everything done if you schedule 100% of your time. But you just might if you only schedule 60%.

(I used to schedule 80% of my time, but I still wasn’t getting everything done. I haven’t perfected it, but it seems like my unplanned emergency rate is about 40% on average. Yours may be different, and hopefully it’s lower.)


With all this said, it really boils down to two main ideas:

  1. Be smart about how you schedule your time. Leave room for the unexpected and unavoidable.
  2. When you can’t or didn’t do something, be direct and honest about why. Even if it’s painful right away, it will work itself out.

And stop telling people you are busier than they are. Because you’re not.

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The Polymath Lab will be closing its doors in 2017. Many articles here will be moved to Sean's Medium account, which is the space in which he is currently writing.