A Helpful Guide to Becoming Unbusy


“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.” ― Lin Yutang

It was in this video from Jeff Shinabarger that I first heard the phrase, “‘Busy’ has become the new ‘Fine’.” As in, when you ask somebody how they were doing, they used to answer, “Fine.” But nowadays, everybody answers, “Busy.”

Seemingly, busy has become the default state for too many of our lives.

But is the state of busy really improving our lives? Certainly not. Statistics indicate 75% of parents are too busy to read to their children at night. There is a rising number of children being placed in day cares and after-school activities. Americans are having a hard time finding opportunity for vacations these days. 33% of Americans are living with extreme stress daily. And nearly 50% of Americans say they regularly lie awake at night because of stress. This is a problem. We have become too busy.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Busy is not inevitable. (tweet that)

Each of us can take intentional steps to unbusy our lives.

Consider this Helpful Guide to Becoming Unbusy:

1. Realize that being busy is a choice. It is a decision we make. We are never forced into a lifestyle of busyness. The first, and most important, step to becoming less busy is to simply realize that our schedules are determined by us. We do have a choice in the matter. We don’t have to live busy lives.

2. Stop the glorification of busy. Busy, in and of itself, is not a badge of honor. In fact, directed at the wrong pursuits, it is actually a limiting factor to our full potential. It is okay to not be busy. Repeat this with me: It is okay to not be busy.

3. Appreciate and schedule rest. One of the reasons many of us keep busy schedules is we fail to recognize the value of rest. But rest is beneficial to our bodies, our minds, and our souls. Set aside one day per week for rest and family. Intentionally schedule it on your calendar. Then, guard it at all costs.

4. Revisit your priorities. Become more intentional with your priorities and pursuits in life. Determine again what are the most significant contributions you can offer this world. And schedule your time around those first. Busyness is, at its core, about misplaced priorities.

5. Own fewer possessions. The things we own take up far more time and mental energy than we realize. They need to be cleaned, organized, and maintained. And the more we own, the more time is required. Own less stuff. And find more time because of it.

6. Cultivate space in your daily routine. Take time for lunch. Find space in your morning to sit quietly before starting your day. Invest in solitude, meditation, or yoga. Find opportunity for breaks at work in between projects. Begin right away cultivating little moments of space and margin in your otherwise busy day.

7. Find freedom in the word, “no.” Seneca wrote, “Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things.” Recognize the inherent value in the word “no.” Learning to say “no” to less important commitments opens your life to pursue the most important.

Busy does not need to define you. Unbusy is possible. It’s okay to be happy with a calm life. And doesn’t that sound wonderful right about now?

Image: Moyan_Brenn

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. Kelly Tribble says

    Wow… this post certainly generated a plethora of diverse comments. I did agree that the “day care” comment in the original post was unfortunate. I mean, I get what the point was… but that’s a trigger point for so many.

    For me, the biggest take-away point was “the glorification of busy.” This comes from a good place (the Puritanism work ethic). But It’s not about sacrificing family time or money… and it’s not about working less at something you really enjoy. It’s about how we (as a culture) feel that – unless we present this mode of being “crazy busy” – that people will think we are lazy and unproductive. In my opinion, the opposite is true. We’ve all heard the stories of other countries that have 2-3 times as much paid vacation and family medical leave/maternity/paternity leave… and where the expectation is that you will work hard at work, but that you don’t live, breath, and sleep your job… and how they get as much (or more) done than we (Americans) do while having better life-balance.

    Of course, whenever I bring this up, people will inevitably speak of Greece and other countries who have economies that are in the toilet. But there are other countries, too… such as modern-day Germany… who are doing well (bailing out Greece, I understand) and still don’t have to walk around convincing everyone of their busyness.

    My boss is a Baby-Boomer who teaches some generational learning differences (higher education). She has spoken lots about how Baby-Boomers had to work insanely hard (especially women) to achieve, and that they continue to work very long hours. When a younger employee comes on board and wants to cut out at 5:00pm (because that’s when the work day is over), the Baby-Boomer boss is perturbed and views the younger employee as not being truly dedicated to the job. This is outrageous. All bosses should encourage the younger set to embrace their job as only a part of of their life… and to strive for that balance. Just because (for example) you made the choice to sacrifice having any relationship with your own family or community in order to climb the ladder of financial success… doesn’t mean that everyone under you should make those same choices. Most younger people embrace a better way… they want to be employed and have time for relationships and community. The job is not the life.

    Sorry for yet another long post…

      • Pete C. says

        Love love love this! Thanks for sharing this awesome perspective. I’ve thought about these things almost every day but could never pin point it or put it into words…. Until reading this. :-)

      • Janet says

        Very insightful comment about the baby boomer bosses. Although I have lived with it, I never noticed it. Leaving work on time is very much frowned upon in our culture as is using flex time for family events that are not medical in nature such as attending a school play.

    • Nancy DiMauro says

      I have to agree our culture has us perceiving that you must always be busy to be successful. I did it myself, worked extra hours, went to college (accelerated courses) after working 8-10 hours. Of course, I strived for A’s. The sacrifice, was time away from my family, I sometimes wonder what I missed; what impact did this make on my child. I ended up quitting my job after 30years and moving to a place that seemed much slower paced. I however, have struggled with a slower pace. It is something I have to learn AND not feel guilty for watching a show or reading a book instead of cleaning and laundry or taking a class. I hope I succeed in getting comfortable with taking time to sit on the beach (Myrtle Beach), hike or bike and not feeling guilty. It certainly can suck the joy out of life!
      Bravo to the younger generation…..and other countries who beleive vacation and family time are most important.

  2. says

    It seems that being “busy” has become some sort of badge of honor in our society and that makes me sad. In recent months I have changed my answer to the question “how are you?” I now answer “I am well.” This answer does not mean everything is hunky dory and peachy keen, it just means that at my core things are steady and strong. (Even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes)

    I like to think of a hymn when I say I’m well; “It is well, with my soul. It is well, it is well, with my soul.” Because when all other things are considered. That is what is most important.

  3. says

    Hi Joshua,

    Thanks for the tips. I found that even if I was careful not to get busy, it happened slowly over the years, so much so that I was not taking time to myself and think and pray. I’ve been less busy lately, reprioritizing and I am starting to feel like I found myself again. This began with looking into how to live a simpler life.

    • L Jones says

      I disagree. This discussion of busy is not about having a job. It is about your attitude and approach to life.
      Unfortunately, in our current economy many have very little choice as to how many hours, or how ‘busy’, they have to be to keep their job(s).

  4. Sara says

    I’m working on how to resolve this goal with reality. I’m convinced that this can only be achieved by either introverts or moneyed-extroverts.

    My husband and I both work full time (50-hrs week, because we have each been chastised for less by our supervisors) to afford basic housing. utilities, food, insurance, and daycare. We live a 1200 sf home with modest furnishings, don’t vacation except to visit grandparents, and try to choose quality time over gifts during the holidays. We wake at 5:30 am to get both of us and our toddler up, dressed, fed, and commuted to work/daycare on time at 7:00 am. Work ends at 4:00 pm, and I commute back, pick up from daycare, and get home to start dinner and pay attention the kid for a few minutes at 5:00 pm. Hubby runs any necessary errands outside the house and gets home after a 30-minute commute around 6:00 pm. He gets changed, we eat dinner until 7:00 pm. He goes through the mail, pays bills, does dishes, etc. while I give the toddler a bath and a story, and put her down to sleep at 8:00 pm. Between 8:00 and 9:00 pm, we tidy toys, take out garbage, clean toilets, etc. as needed. After 9, we watch one tv show, read, or catch up on job-related work, and go to bed by 10:00.

    On the weekend, Hubby goes to work on Saturday and I do childcare, laundry, yard work, car maintenance, try to prep for the week’s meals so there is less work on weeknights, and grandma comes over for dinner. Sunday, we continue those tasks left over from Saturday, and if we have some free time, we have 3-4 hours of social interaction with other humans who are not family. Occasionally, I schedule a long weekend – in advance, using vacation hours – just to get a breather from constant demands on my time, but then catch hell from colleagues and supervisors for not being in the office. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

    It feels like we are perpetually behind in our daily schedule, professionally, socially… To simplify, I can identify the following options: 1.) quit our jobs, 2.) neglect the house or hire a maid, 3.) isolate ourselves from friends and family, or 4.) hire a babysitter and see my kid even less than I do now. The first two aren’t financially feasible, and the second two are my only source of sanity.

    Frankly, even reading these articles about how to slow down feels like one more thing I’m unable to accomplish. But I keep doing it to give me hope that someone, somewhere, has been able to achieve balance.

    • Jennifer says

      Our lives are sooo similar and I can totally relate. We have two boys and both work full time outside the home. Praying and my husband’s encouragement are what get me through. Working towards a more minimal life with less debt so we can enjoy life more. :)

    • Travis says

      Sending you good thoughts.

      I hope you find unbusyness and more time to connect with each other, family, friends and nature.

      I don’t know what you might have to loose in order to find that

    • EU says

      Dear Sara

      I can feel with you very much. Me and my partner both work around 60 hours a week plus that we have two children. It is tough, there is doubt about that and I used to think like you, feeling squeezed between a trillion commitments about which I could do nothing. However, at some point I realised that I victimised myself, that even I had a choice how to employ my time.
      The first realisation was that I simply needed to delegate. So we started shopping groceries, etc. online with delivery, hired a cleaning company, an occasional garden help, and even someone cooking for us…and no, we are no income millionaires, far from it. We simply cut out on other expences like clothes, eating out, energy, travels, buying books ( we have far too many already anyway) and other stuff which might not seem expensive at first, but accumulates to increadible sums over the year.

      The second step was to radically declutter the house, and I really mean radically. And Gosh, did we have much stuff. I’d never realised how much we owned. I’d say, now more than half of our storage space is empty. I sold and donated furniture and this gave us more space and less cleaning. I’m still in the process of downsizing. I have collected and restaurated old furniture for over 20 years and I have a hard time to let them go. But once I manage it feels great and it becomes increasingly easier.

      The next and final step for us will be to sell the house and car and move to a smaller and more central apartment. Luckily we live in a city with fantastic public transport and biking facilities. I’m so looking forward to it, I’d rather move today than tomorrow. My hope is that we will further reduce our monthly expenses and the number of errands and obligations connected with owning a house with garden and a car.

      As to my work, I guess I’m simply in the extremely lucky position that I love my work, it’s definitely my dream job, but I also needed to learn to say no to tasks that led me nowhere and to delegate more. This has ben a bumpy journey for me, but being more conscious about what I let enter my to do list and what not has made me much more satisfied with my situation. A second miracle cure was actually to learn time management tools. I simply read a lot of books and took online courses on the subject, tried everything that appealed to me, and finally kept the stuff that worked. I can say now that I definitely have increased my productivity and my focus. And the feeling of being ahead of your obligations and commitments is priceless.

      None of this has come over night. It has been a long journey, taking more than two years and which is in no way completed. It is a tough process, from the point of realising that one isn’t as helpless as one thought, which strange enough is a rather painful realisation, to the liberating process of taking real action and the reward of slowly seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

      This was definitely not a minimalistic comment ;), but I’m sure you and many others can find their own path to more time and happiness.

    • Scott says


      It’s pretty crazy to imagine people are _pretending_ to be busy. I think people are pretending that their obligations are _not_ sucking them dry.

      Job and responsibilities alone can take all the time you have except sleep.

      And if someone is wearing it as a badge it’s a consolation prize. Not saying there aren’t martyrs out there. But I don’t think that is what is going on with most peopke I know.

      I’ve noticed that, you can make more money, or make less, but you can’t take a high paying job and work half time so easily. Every economic class around me seems to pay all of their time, and only the compensation varies. How posh is what you get to do in your meager spare time. How nice is the car you sit in during rush hour.

      What are the explicit secrets to people who live otherwise?

      If it is merely attitude, be specific about how it manifests in: not being at work, commuting, or taking care of home/family “non-electives”.

  5. Deepak S N says

    Very true. ‘Busy’ness has become the order of the day. Joshua is right in pointing out that being busy is a choice (though most of us don’t try to be stop busy). Long back, I had read in some article that if you are busy, it means you are not able to manage yourself or whatever you are doing. Being busy is a choice. Right. We should make time for rest and respect.

  6. says

    Something that has done wonders for me was to start making a to do list of what needs to be done each day. I am very strict with it now, I do nothing other then what is on my to do list and if something pop’s up it has to wait till tomorrow. This not only allows me to finish my tasks earlier. It gives me much more freedom. Now I am able to go for a run daily and also spend more time with family.

  7. Dana says

    I do like most of you and deal with all the tasks as described before, except I am a single parent. Okay we do not own a house, so no mortgage to pay but still I am working full time (40 or more hours per week) and I have a child to take care of.

    I do believe that uncluttering my space will help me and my son, especially that we already live in a tiny place. we have a lot of toys and clothes. And every time I try to make even more space for toys or books as it’s sometimes hard to keep up with toddler’s development.

    In all this i do try to find a moment to email, text or call my friends who are all over the world. The only thing I would like is that someone does some housework for me and I have more time to be with my son, in order to understand him better :)

    Thank you for this post. While everyone else is ‘collecting’, it’s reassuring to know that i don’t have to do it at all :)

  8. Shanna says

    I love the video. That is totally how I feel currently. Busy nor fine is how I want to feel anymore. It is not fine.

  9. Sarah says

    Thank you for posting this.

    I also think that people worry others will think they are lazy or bad parents if they don’t say they are “busy.”

    I decided last year that I would no longer say that I’m busy. I now say that my life is “full.” Full because I have 3 sons and a wonderful husband who fill me up with love.

    The word busy implies things are frantic and hard.

    Full implies depth of relationships.

    At least that is how I interpret the words.
    ~Sarah S.

  10. says

    I loved this article and am striving to find more calm in my life–I don’t have a paying job, but I volunteer for several organizations and put in more hours in a week than my full-time working husband. Now I’m looking for a paid full-time job that focuses on what I really want to do…know it will still be “busy” but think there has to be satisfaction in intentionally steering my life in the direction I want and really honoring my priorities.

  11. Daniele Perrelli says

    While your post is great and true, unless one prepares for later stages of life you can’t escape being “busy” while working to survive. I am 58 years old and I work 7 days a week on my clinic. Please, you and others in your age category: PLAN AHEAD so you can truly practice what you preach! My joke is always telling folks….it wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark!

  12. Cecilia says

    Growing up in a rather Puritan-work-ethic-minded home I was always chastised for just sitting around reading or writing poetry or whatever. Productive labor for the family was the only way I could keep from being harassed. Sooo, I learned to knit and crochet to make hats, mittens, blankets for my family and for Christmas gifts. I learned to sew to make my own clothes so that I wouldn’t have to wear thrift-store clothes. I learned to cook so that we could have different meals than the few my mom knew how to make. I babysat for cousins during my summers and school breaks so that their parents could work. I studied and did my schoolwork above and beyond what was required. These are things I associate with being “busy” and even today I fill my life with doing things for others. There is nothing wrong with pouring out your time for others. Making “busy-ness” sound like a negative is missing the point of why many people feel good about themselves while being “busy.” When I say I am busy, I am not whining. I am jubilant that I am healthy and blessed with friends and family and members of my church community to whom I can give of myself and my time. To me, “I’m busy” means “I’m doing very well, thank you!”

  13. Alice Ann Hengesbach says

    Thank you, Joshua, for taking the time to articulate some solid truths. The primary one being “choice.” I have been fortunate although I might not have realized it at each point on my journey to have a life full of unscheduled time. I am still alive and doing well. I now choose to schedule “no work/busy” time. I could schedule work for seven days a week (really!) but to what point. As I type at 9:36 am EDT on a sunny, breezy Carolina coastal day … I am not “busy.” From my point of view, my life is simple, calm, full of children, good people, gardens, smiles … well, you get the point. It took a while to get here and I am so very glad and grateful to myself that I have arrived. : ) And, now off to work … for a while. : )

  14. says

    I wanted to add that at first it may help to schedule this free time on your calendar, as counter intuitive as that may sound. We have to remember to “pay ourselves” first, meaning that other tasks will expand to fill your time if you don’t set boundaries. I work from home and during my day I have time blocked off on my corporate calendar to walk my dog and go to the gym. It’s a great way to split things up and take back some control.

  15. David says

    That was a wonderful read. Although I have the time, I would rather not read the comments that are longer than the original post.

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  17. Roothie says

    Enjoyed this article very much. I have been working very hard for the last 8 years motivated by a large mortgage (House prices tripled in my home town which I always intended to return to.) Anyway, all my wage went straight onto the mortgage and we have it under control now. The busyness was strangely addictive and I developed anxiety. I can still feel the anxiety now even though I have stopped taking work. Hoping time will heal the damage.

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