Top 4 Reasons for the "I'm too busy" Excuse

If you want the people around you to believe something to be true, all that you have to do is repeat it 100 times. For example, tell everyone around you that you have a lot of work on “your too busy” by the time you have repeated it 100 times the people around you will perceive it to be true. The effect is increased if you frame it well by linking it to something that resonates with other people’s emotions. Such as “Workloads are Increasing – Staff are Pressed and Stressed”.

On some of the 100 occasions that you repeat “I am too busy” the people around you will also be feeling under pressure, and your message will resonate. The great news is that most of your co-workers are not going to critically question your message and will over a period of time come to just accept that you are “too busy”.

I have heard it many times with people telling me I am too busy to help, I am too busy to take on that task, and I am too busy to attend meetings. But what does it really mean when someone says “I am too busy”?

Does it mean “I have a 100% work load and cannot free up any time to do this extra task” or could it really mean something else? In my experience I have found the top 4 reasons that people use the “I am too busy excuse”, they are:

Employee Work Preferences

You will find people saying, “I am too busy to complete Task A” simply because they prefer another task and would prefer to devote more time to the other task, alternatively they simply don’t like Task A so they try to avoid having it assigned to them.

For example: One team leader may tell you that they are too busy to complete all of their coaching in their team, whilst another team leader completes their coaching on time every time, the difference could be one enjoys coaching whilst the other seeks to avoid the tough conversations that sometimes come with coaching.

In this case the person can only avoid a task if they are not being held accountable for completing the least favourable task.

Perceived Legitimate Workload, "the rise of the attender"

The most common form of perceived legitimate workload is people thinking that they are too busy to complete “tasks” because they have a lot of meetings to attend; I call these people ‘attenders’ because they almost never decline a meeting request.

If you ask these people to complete a task they will often tell you that they are “too busy”. A good way to find out if you’re dealing with an “Attender” is to send them a meeting request for a time that they are free in their calendar for the duration the task that they are too busy to do would take to complete, make the meeting request a little ambiguous and don’t give too much detail in the invitation, if they accept the meeting request then they are an attender.

Quite often attenders can free up 2 – 3 days a week to deliver value-adding work by learning to block out time in their diaries for “tasks”

Needing to be Needed

People with a low workload, especially causal or contract workers, will tell you that they are too busy - often to preserve their position and to create continuity of employment. This motivation comes from the need for income security; a basic need which is being eroded by an increase in casual and contract employment.

The Pretender

Some people are dedicated to showing us how hard they are working; these people are expert networkers they spend hours every day working their vast network, leaving everyone aware just how busy they are.

These people are dedicated to portraying their level of busyness through long hours in the office, ensuring that they are seen to be at work later than anyone else, they send emails late and night and early in the morning all to give the impression of how much work they have and how busy they are.

Whilst there are times when this may be genuine, if you measure their output you will find that they are doing a lot of hours for the same or lower output than many others.

Some People Are Just Busy


There are, of course, a lot of people with very high workloads, who work long hours to meet their deadlines. This being said, these people are often the first to help out and they meet all of their deliverables. You will find that these people have a higher level of personal accountability and often are more service orientated.

How do you tell if someone really is just too busy?

You will know when someone is really too busy to help, because they will tell you what tasks they have to get done and by when, They will then tell you when they will have the capacity to assist you with the additional tasks.

For Example:

Peer to Peer: “I am sorry I cannot assist right now as I have to get this business case ready for the steering committee meeting on Thursday, can you postpone your request until Friday?”


Team Leader to their manager: “I have attended five days of training this month so I might have to finish my coaching sessions in the first three days of next month, will that be acceptable?”

A Note for Leaders

Your people will perform at their best if you have an honest conversation with them about their workload and job performance. You will find that banning the “I am too busy excuse” and asking your people to talk openly about what they are working on and how long each task takes will make a difference to your team.

Where reasonable, provide assurances to your team that you will retain them during the lean times and look for additional work to fill their week, even if it is research and write a training session for the rest of the team.

Then take the time to ensure your people are held accountable for all of their work.

Consulting Australia

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