People Who Are Soooooooo Much Busier Than You

A colleague once told me this great Chinese proverb:

“Time is like water in a sponge; if you try really hard, you can always squeeze out some more.”

So very true. People will always find the time for the things they want to do, end of story. If you can’t find the time for something, that just means you don’t actually want to do it. At least, I am like that and I assume others are as well; after all, it wouldn’t be a proverb for nothing.

In professional communication, saying “I’m too busy” is often a perfectly fine euphemism for “I don’t really want to do this thing right now (or possibly ever), sorry.” After all, a lot of academic work is work for free (refereeing papers, partaking on conference program committees) or for absolutely minimal compensation (e.g. serving on NSF panels, proposal review), and just because I ask for something doesn’t mean that you have to care enough to try to find the time.

But when you are too busy to look at a paper on which you are a coauthor, to which you contributed infinitesimally yet don’t have the courtesy to take self off the author list?
That’s just being a pub-blocking douche. Know that I hate your guts for it. Either $hit or get off the can — comment promptly or say it’s fine to go as is.

I hate the people who go around bolstering about how busy they are and who generally busy themselves with the business of out-busying everyone. For some, it’s a way to show that they are superior and more in demand than you. Maybe for some it’s a way to hide the fact that they are not actually all that busy. And I am sure for many that means they don’t have their priorities straight and/or are inefficient; working with them drives me bonkers.

There is a guy I know from graduate school who has for years now been going progressively more and more on my fuckin’ nerves about his busyness.
A few weeks ago he sent me an email devoted entirely to how unbelievably busy he was; it was a full paragraph, multiple-sentences long,
but without a single punctuation mark. Apparently, when you get to be really truly busy, punctuation has to go. Before you think he had some unusual crunch at work, he didn’t. The email content was the same as ever. He works for a company, as do many other people, but he works from home, has no kids, and is part of a dual career couple; when he’s not whining about how much busier than everyone else on Earth he is, he takes long vacations in exotic places. So waaaaah, waaaah, cry me a fuckin’ river.

When I was in grad school, my PhD advisor had a big group. He and a few other faculty had an administrative assistant, C, who was the most efficient and organized person I had ever met in my life: Whatever any of the students or faculty needed, she did impeccably, never needed to be asked twice, and she never actually looked busy. In contrast, the department chair’s secretary was ironically one of the worst assistants in the department (so said everyone), and was constantly dying under the piles of paperwork; you routinely had to ask her twice or three times to get anything done, and things were often wrong. This was a perfect example of busyness being anti-correlated with doing anything useful.

I have some collaborators who are very difficult when it comes to scheduling anything, nominally willing, but each meeting requires me to endlessly wait to hear back from them and people exchanging numerous emails. If I say what everyone is thinking “You know, you don’t actually want to schedule this, why don’t I do it without you as I see fit, and you do whatever it is that you prefer doing,” then I am too impatient, too emotional, and generally not academic-politics-savvy. Some friends are like that too; it takes many weeks so schedule a dinner. WTF? Why is it such a big deal? Just pick a night and come over, why does it have to be so complicated? Or should I again assume you don’t actually want to do this, ever?

The thing is, the proverb above definitely works for me. When something is important, I will make the time. I have a small number of very high, ironclad priorities, and I will make time for them at the expense of a whole bunch of other $hit, probably more so now than before tenure. I have colleagues who have some sort of priority-insensitive pipeline; things just get into the pipeline and then get tended to when they get tended to. Nope, not here. Submitting grant applications is an intermittent but very important and time-sensitive priority, it bumps everything else. Not so time sensitive, but no less important, is editing papers to submit sooner rather than later; it bumps a whole bunch of other stuff down or off the pipeline. Seeing my students when they need to talk to me is a very high priority. In general, anything that’s instrumental to the careers of junior people whom I support is a high priority [e.g. promptly writing letters of recommendation for my trainees; promptly responding with my availability (or lack thereof) when someone else’s student needs to schedule PhD defense]. During the semester, teaching is a very high priority (emails, homework assignment and solutions postings, exam grading).

Also, I don’t procrastinate with the stupid $hit that is key to getting the important things done and off the table, like returning proof corrections. It drives me crazy when people sit on them for a week — just read through the damn thing and send it in! In general, our job offers plenty of busy work that is necessary to complete in order for the harder, intellectually demanding work to get done. A good example is doing the proposal boilerplate (biosketch, budget and budget justification, data management statement, equipment description, etc.); I kinda enjoy working on the boilerplate, as it’s like foreplay before getting to the hard stuff  (see what I did there?).

The tl;dr version of this post is — I kind of hate you if you constantly complain that you are busy. I think you are either not busy but lying, seeking to get the upper hand/admiration, or just don’t have the guts to tell me that you don’t want to do what I asked. In the off chance it’s none of the three, you need to get shit together and get your priorities straight and get organized. Especially if other people’s education and careers depend on you.



  1. I pretty much agree with everything you said – except that colleagues DO need to give you a heads up when they need things from you. Yes, I might be a minor co-author on something and yes I will move something like that up the priority list and yes I will get right on it, but PLEASE give me a heads up that you need something from me on xx date. THEN I can plan around that and get it to you. Because Yes, I DO have a huge pile of other jobs that are also very high on the priority list and I need to work out how to juggle it all and meet everyone’s deadlines.

    I hate colleagues/co-authors who DO NOT COMMUNICATE. My calendar is absolutely packed and unlike what you say above, there actually are a lot of things that I would like to do but I just have to say NO because it is not humanly possible. I am working 7 days a week, all hours of the day to the detriment of my health – yet I love what I”m doing so I keep at it. I *know* that isn’t smart and I keep promising myself to put other things as priority and maybe I will but until then…..

  2. Constantly hearing people say how busy they are just gives me further angst and imposter syndrome. I don’t feel all that busy – especially in the summer. I feel like some of that is just posturing, like the “80 hour” work week bs.
    If you want someone else to make a non-contribution to one of your papers, but get back to you promptly, count me in 🙂

  3. I laugh my fucken asse offe at insecure losers who feel more important the busier they purport to be. Real power means you have control over your own time and don’t need to be busy, but rather can leisurely focus your attention on the things that you value.

  4. I was actually just starting to write a post on this! Though mostly about how I’m not busy now after an intense travel schedule. I never understood bragging about busy-ness. Most people that talk about being too busy for anything either seem lazy or disorganized to me. The only time I feel busy is when I’m traveling a ton. And I hate it. I never brag about the shitty things in life. I brag when I’ve got free time. I love having nothing to do. There’s often a sense of accomplishment. That’s why I’m looking forward to retirement.

  5. I once worked with a guy (who had a really busy job) who said his only forbidden conversation topic was how busy things were… loved this guy

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