Sometimes 'I’m Busy' Just Doesn’t Cut It — Here Are 5 Things to Say Instead

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Lorelei Yang718
Wonky consultant with a passion for words
It's a simple fact of life: we're all busy. Between work, families and personal lives, most people's lives are a delicate balancing act between competing priorities. Thus, "I'm so busy" or "I'm too busy" is a frequent — and too-true — go-to response when declining invitations or expressing that we can't take on additional responsibilities. 
However, there are some real downsides to defaulting to "I'm busy" as your reason for not making your friend's party, picking up some work from a coworker or not meeting your obligations. Read on to learn how "I'm busy" connotes to other people, how you can replace this term with more productive alternatives and what you stand to gain from removing the phrase from your vocabulary.

How does saying "I'm busy" connote?

However, even if factually true, the subtext of "I'm busy" can be wildly divergent from our intentions. While you might believe saying "I'm busy" merely telegraphs the truth about a packed schedule, what others may hear is "What I'm working on is more important than you." 
This can hurt relationships in the long term by making those who you always seem to be too busy for feel devalued. Additionally, and on a personal note, some studies suggest that saying you're stressed or busy actually makes you feel more stressed or busy.

In 2012 New York Times Opinionator article called "The 'Busy' Trap," Tim Kreider wrote, "If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ 
It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’" Kreider concludes that "busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day." However, he wonders, is "all this histrionic exhaustion... a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn't matter?"

5 Alternatives to "I'm busy"

1. "I'm doing X."

Rather than simply offering "I'm busy" as a blanket declaration of your unavailability, tell the other person what you have going on. There's no need to bore them with all the details, of course, but simply saying, "I have a meeting" or "I already have [X engagement] to go to at that time" is more sincere-sounding and allows the other person to ask what you've up to in greater detail and share an update on their own life in return. 

2. Proactively offer a rain check or alternative time.

Offering alternative times to meet is a great way to help the other person whose invitation you're declining know you're still interested in their invitation. Saying, "I have to do [X], but I'd still like to meet at [Y time(s)] if you're available, once things calm down" shows initiative and takes the burden of rescheduling off the initial inviter. 

3. In work contexts, lend a hand where you can even if you can't meet the initial ask.

In a work environment where someone may be asking you to take on additional work that you simply don't have the capacity for, being transparent and sincere about your lack of time and desire to pitch in can go a long way. To achieve this, let the colleague who's asking for your help know exactly what you're working on, how you feel and what you can offer instead. 
For example, if a colleague is asking you to join a meeting that you're unavailable for, you could say that you'd like to join the meeting, but can't due to an existing obligation (which you should specify) and offer to send ideas in advance of the meeting or review the meeting minutes afterwards.

4. Express that you're busy at the moment, but expect to calm down in the near future.

This is especially useful if you believe someone's asking about how busy you are as a segue to asking you to help with more work. While you don't want to misrepresent how busy you are, you also don't want to put yourself in the position of either overloading yourself with too much work or sounding like you're dodging work once they ask what you have going on. In these cases, saying something like, "I'm at capacity at the moment, but expect to calm down [at a specific time] after finishing [X]" is a great response that's specific, measured and gives the person an opportunity to re-approach you down the line.

5. Make it work and say yes.

Sometimes, it makes sense to make your schedule — and priorities — work around someone else's invitation. This is especially true if the person who's extending the invite to you is significantly senior, visiting your area from out of town or otherwise not easy to find additional opportunities to connect with. It's also worth keeping in mind that being constantly unavailable will eventually cause people to simply stop reaching out to you in both personal and professional contexts, which can only hurt you.

Benefits of avoiding "I'm busy"

When you stop saying "I'm busy" and start to give others more insight into what you're working on and why you can't make it to events they're inviting you to, you'll see a few benefits. First, you'll find that people appreciate your forthrightness. Second, you'll find that they believe you're more capable, since they'll likely perceive you as having a better handle on your own time and obligations. Third, you may even find yourself feeling calmer when you stop referred to yourself as busy and, therefore, harried.
With these tips in mind, make a conscious effort to excise "I'm busy" from your vocabulary and see how it improves your relationships at the office and with those around you. Odds are, you'll find that you and those you interact with will all appreciate the change. Finally, to help yourself actually feel less busy, check out these six secrets to feeling less busy.

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Lorelei Yang is a New York-based consultant and freelance writer/researcher. Find her on Twitter and LinkedIn.