The Art of Self-Inflicted Busy Work

Image from the New York Times

Busy work.

When someone says this phrase, what do you think of?

Maybe your teacher doling out endless assignments with trivial questions. Or your boss loading you up with work that seems like a waste of time. 

And you would be completely right. But recently, I’ve discovered a new kind of busy work. It doesn’t take the form of stacks of paper, or long office hours, or pointless tasks from a superior. It differs on one simple thing…

It is self-inflicted.

Self-inflicted busy work is, arguably, the hardest to manage. It can take the form of procrastination–doing any minor, easy task to avoid the most pressing matter. Ambition, the deep-seated desire to thrive in every possible field. Even obligation–a self-imposed feeling of guilt when you aren’t doing a certain activity or when you are doing something else instead.

The difficulty with self-inflicted busy work is that it is a gray subject. All the catalysts I just listed could have catastrophic effects… or wonderful, inspirational impacts. 

Ambition is an admirable trait. Obligation to better yourself is much the same. But busy work of this nature can also cause you to overload your schedule, forget to prioritize, and push aside your passions in pursuit of more activities.

Earlier this year, I attended a youth leadership seminar where one of the speakers said roughly this:

“You need to actively choose to do the things you love, not just make time. Using whatever few spare minutes you have on these sources of joy won’t make you happy in the long run. Make the choice to spend time doing what you love.”

This struck a chord with me, and led me to wonder…

How much time do I actually devote to the things I love to do?

In the end, I came to the simple conclusion: not that much.

Each year starts out as a new slate, but, like most ambitious individuals, that slate is jam-packed within a month. I have so many interests it gets hard to keep track and my resume’s “activities” list devours the page. 

Things start to fall by the wayside when I get flustered: writing for the blog or writing for myself, reading, playing my french horn. More demanding aspects of my schedule wedge themselves in until the “non-deadline” and “creative” passions wither and cramp.

Sadly, that’s just the way things are in life. Nowadays, people (especially kids) have so many opportunities that we start to overload. 

Before you get angry, let me say what you were already thinking:

So drop a few things. Sure, it may suck, but it’s the right choice in the end.

Good point. The dilemma? I genuinely enjoy everything I choose to do. But most importantly…

I like to be busy.

It’s not often that I hear someone say that, but I’ll be the first one to admit it. Whether it is good for me, my hobbies, and my schedule or not, I like to be busy. 

I’ve started to take pride in my ambition, bragging of my packed schedule with fake complaints. I won’t deny it–like most self-inflicted busy workers, I often compare my schedule to others in a “contest” of sorts. To those who aren’t the “try everything” type, this kind of conversation will sound incredibly petty:

“My schedule is soooo busy. I go straight from school to swim, then to leadership right after, then to band all the way til’ 9, and I don’t get to sleep until 10:30!”

“Me too. After school I have jazz band, orchestra rehearsals, chess club, online cooking classes, and track. I’m busy all the time.”

Annoying? Probably. But it is important to know that many people who have all these activities and self-inflicted busy work know what they are doing and actively choose to pursue this lifestyle anyway.

Like me, many ambitious people like to be busy. Why would we choose to add one more project, one more club, one more assignment? Because, in our minds…why not?

For those of you with this same mindset, I offer a word of advice–do everything you want to do. Sign up for the chess club, and golf, and track, and cross country, and culture club, and student council. With two conditions.

#1. Do not complain about your schedule to other people. I know from experience–they will either nod half-heartedly, vigorously compare and contrast their own busy lives, or tell you that you need to drop some things.

And, finally,

#2. Do not let the important things slip away while you chase all those paths. Family relationships. Friendships. Schoolwork. Your mental health. And, of course, activities that make you, you! Those things, large or small, that make you genuinely happy should not be shoved aside.


If you take away anything at all from this article, let it be this: it is perfectly normal to like being busy. To be interested in a lot of things and avidly pursue them is not a claim many can make. 

So continue to seek out those ambitions for as long as they bring you happiness, so long as you never lose sight of what matters most: the people and activities that bring you joy. 

As you and I know best, life is nothing without passion. Don’t let anyone make you feel stupid for chasing it.

*Featured image from