On Being Busy Or Being Full: How Can We Tell The Difference?

Written by Misha Thompson of The Offense of Joy

I read an article recently that made me want to jump up and down and shout and smile! It was written by the fabulous writer Anne Lamott about the decisions we face in life.

“..At 80,” Anne says about the students she is teaching, “will they be proud that they spent their lives keeping their houses cleaner than anyone else in the family did, except for mad Aunt Beth, who had the vapors? Or that they kept their car polished to a high sheen that made the neighbors quiver with jealousy? Or worked their fingers to the bone providing a high quality of life, but maybe accidentally forgot to be deeply and truly present for their kids, and now their grandchildren? …What fills us is real, sweet, dopey, funny life.”

I come from a background of a lot of busyness – and all for very good reasons. When I got married and had my first baby I carried over that sense of needing to say yes to worthy requests and being available for beautiful opportunities – especially for people. I really love people. What I neglected to calculate into that was who I am. Or even more so: who my children are and their capacity.

My husband introduced the radical concept to me of choice. He lives in the realm of freedom and possibility. Don’t laugh – although I know I deserve it – it had never dawned on me that it was okay for me to choose things based on how I wanted my life to be. Or on how much I could realistically do without it costing our family a bit too much.

Okay, maybe freedom of choice was something I was aware of in the broad sense. But I still lived with a constant sense of letting people down, feeling guilty, trying to do it all or withdrawing because I felt I couldn’t handle most of it.

That didn’t work out very well for me.

Photo by Michael Thompson

A couple years ago I started thinking about living by priorities versus pressure. I started thinking about the difference between being busy and being full. My life is still very full, but now I am on a daily journey of rejecting the pull of being busy.

These are the differences I have noticed in choosing to be full over being busy:

1. Being full is based on intentional choices.

Being full is purposeful because it took the time to prioritize.

Being busy is reactionary and chooses out of exhaustion, out of the pressure of finding my identity externally and what other people think. Or worse, out of a false sense of it all depending on me. Being full looks at life and prioritizes based on an honest accounting of what I can accomplish and how I want that to look.

These days I am technically not very “busy” at all. At least not busy as I would define it. Most of what I do involves being at home, holding my children and reading to them, explaining and re-explaining patiently, re-doing the same laundry over and over again ad nauseum, listening to piano music being practised slowly or to the same knock-knock joke being told to me countless times. It is a lot of being available, a lot of root-building, a lot of moments of exactly the opposite of the activities I would naturally prefer.

Many days I would rather choose the lack of conflict teaching requires, sleep, an uninterrupted adult conversation, a clean house. But I have realized that underneath all of that, what I want most is not to get to the end of my life and have regrets. So I learned I have to choose my priorities.

Photo by Michael Thompson

2. Being full is saying yes.

Yes to giving, yes to being available. Being full is having enough. Busy is at a loss, is out of control. Being busy is full of saying no, I’m tired, I can’t, I wish and maybe when this season is over. Full has time.

I have found that not being busy means letting go. Letting go of control. Letting go of being in charge. Letting go of certain security and fears. Letting it all go so that I have a lot more space to be full. Full of things others can feast on. It is saying yes to enjoyment, grace, gentle words, patience, laughter – as a lifestyle.

Photo by Lionel Thompson

3. Being full is being filled.

Busy runs on empty. Full has found a way to be filled up in order to give. Full is the opposite of vacant – it is together. Full gives and keeps on giving because it has been on the receiving end, too, and it is grateful.

Being full is still exhausting and sometimes, honestly, busy is preferable – busy has so much more to show for it. Full is not devoid of sacrifice. It is sacrifice. Full can easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Full can still be exhausting, it can still feel like too much on some days, but it is the right kind of much.

It is choosing to be 100% completely myself and allowing – catalyzing – others to be the same.

Photo by Michael Thompson

Summer is a perfect time to recalibrate. What are your priorities? How are you doing living by them?

About Misha

Misha is a writer and teacher on the subjects of pain and joy. She loves paddle boarding, dutch salty licorice, and she really, really loves sunshine. (She lives in the Pacific Northwest.) She also loves her kids who still give her grace after all her screw ups as a mom. She writes at The Offense of Joy.


  1. What a thought provoking post, lots and lots to think about…

  2. This post resonates with me so much! This is precisely what I am in the process of doing – designing my life (our family’s life) centered on the values of love, compassion, integrity, and contribution.

    One of the things I have noticed, however, is that for some reason, there are people in my life that interpret my choices as my commentary on their life. As if by doing something that is different or opposite of what they do, I am somehow saying that their choices & lifestyle are “bad”? And those same people try to derail me by pressuring me, or doing that whole passive-aggressive thing to get me to be “busy” again. One person has actually blatantly told me that I’m not doing “enough” for my kids because they are not in activities every night of the week, and that they will “fall even further behind than they are because you’re homeschooling them.”

    Its hard not to let the naysayers make you doubt yourself, for me anyway. But I am confident that living a “full” life has already had more benefits to their character & development than “busy” ever did.
    Sofia’s Ideas’s latest post: Response cached until Fri 23 @ 13:00 GMT (Refreshes in 52 Minutes)

    • It’s true, I think living this way can be counter-cultural and it will draw reactions in people. Those expectations (spoken and unspoken) are still hard for me. But at the end of the day I go back to my motivations and choose what I want our family’s lifestyle to look like again. I hear you! Hang in there – I am just for the first time seeing some of the beautiful (initial) results in my kids lives from choosing this and it’s so affirming.
      Misha@ beautyandjoy’s latest post: A Final Post

  3. Gorgeously, honestly written with so much truth woven in. I’m going to have to re-read this a whole bunch of times to let it really seep into my brain…it’s good, meaty stuff.

    I’ll miss reading you here, but will visit your blog regularly. Thanks for all your contributions here!

  4. It has been wonderful to read your words here, Misha! Thank you for your perspective and for all that you have shared.

    “It is saying yes to enjoyment, grace, gentle words, patience, laughter – as a lifestyle.” YES!

    Best Wishes!
    Kara Fleck’s latest post: Let’s Talk- Tooth Fairy Traditions

  5. ah, you wrote this just for me, didn’t you? I am deep in “summer recalibration” — it’s awfully hard sometimes, especially in the realm of homeschooling, to let go of things, activities. your lovely words and clarity are most helpful to me. opening my fist and letting go . . . really, what’s the worst that can happen? xo Nancy

  6. Wonderful post! This resonated with me very much. I almost wondered if you had read my mind… Thank you!

  7. I couldn’t agree more! The entire mission of my blog is to get myself and others to get the busy out of their lives so they can live life to its fullest. I love how you say “Busy runs on empty.” That is how I know when I have gotten too busy – I feel empty. But I feel full after a day of real living! Beautifully written!

  8. Your post today resonates so deeply to me!! I am in kind of a unique position from a lot of you…I have raised 6 of my children during the 80,s and 90’s and know from experience how truly important it is to live “presently” each day with your family…that is all the memories you have, and you can watch your own children grow up and continue that pattern of life with thier little ones, because it comes so naturally to them since you brought them up that wasy! Now I am in the midst of raising three more of my young boys along with some grand kids, and I am ashamed of my self…parenting so differently for a couple of years…living the “busy life” I regret having missed so much of my little ones in this “modern” way of parenting, and I am so greatful to have returned to our original choices…it feels like a “welcome home” to my soul!!!!!

  9. This is a great post! I know that for me, I don’t fulfilled if my time isn’t filled, but the sticking point is the “Intentional Choices” part. When I am choosing my activities I feel great, but when something becomes and obligation, even if I used to enjoy it or it doesn’t take that much time, I feel irritated by it. I hadn’t really thought of it in these terms before, but it is definitely something to consider! Thanks!
    Kelly @ Ahimsa Mama’s latest post: 7 Strategies for Cultivating Creativity in Children

  10. Dear Misha,
    This post caught my attention and bulldozed me over. While reading this, I had this sense of “Yes, I want to be FILLED!” but what is she really talking about? I’m a visual person and can’t seem to see what filled really means. (This is related to your second to last paragraph “Being full is still exhausting and sometimes, honestly, busy is preferable – busy has so much more to show for it. Full is not devoid of sacrifice. It is sacrifice. Full can easily be misinterpreted or misunderstood. Full can still be exhausting, it can still feel like too much on some days, but it is the right kind of much.”

    I don’t feel “filled”. I feel like I am running on empty. I feel like I am aware of living in the present with my young homeschooled kids. I sometimes succeed in looking them straight in the eye, yet fail to give them my mind, body and spirit. I struggle to create time where we are together, make everything a fun learning experience, read, do chores, etc…

    I lack confidence and instead feel like I live “with a constant sense of letting people down, feeling guilty, trying to do it all or withdrawing because I felt I couldn’t handle most of it.”

    I am also very CONFUSED by my “intentional choices” because I still feel behind. I feel like it is not so much my desire that is skewed, but perhaps my perception which results in the skewed choices? I so desperately want to complete my 3yo’s baby book so that it can be complete for her to look at when she gets older. Yet I make choices to do other things that I think are more important like plan for the next day.


    • Hey Liz,

      Thank you for your comment!

      I think one place I had to start was in prioritizing. (There are some great posts on this site written about deciding on what you and your family’s priorities are.) Once I knew what my priorities were I was more able to know what to say yes and no to. Because then even on the days I do feel exhausted or disappointed about what I haven’t been able to accomplish, I still know that I have focused on my priorities. Doing that is filling even when exhausting.

      This is a journey for all of us (as you can see from Renee’s comment below, too.) Hang in there – I think you are asking some great questions!
      Misha@ beautyandjoy’s latest post: A Final Post

  11. sad you’re leaving Misha but know where to go to read more like this (smile). This post gave me lots to think about and ponder and fits so well with where I am right now.

    I sometimes think the difference between these two words is just semantics. There are many days I look back and say “that was a busy day” but I actually mean full in the sense as you describe it.

    However, I can honestly say this past month has been downright “busy” in the way described here. And I was not happy or fulfilled for it. A couple extra obligations (it’s a amazing how just a couple things can do that) competed for time in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

    That’s always my downfall. Life is going well, our days our intentioned and productive (& joyful) and I think “oh, we can handle this extra” thing. But we can’t. At least that’s where I am at.

    I so agree about the intentional choices part (the others also but it always starts at intentional choices for me). The difficulty lies not so much in setting the priorities, at least for me that comes fairly easily, but living by them. Saying no to some things, yes to others. Following through with discipline – going to bed early, rising early, working in the kitchen to get healthy meals on the table when I’d rather be surfing the web, sitting down to work on that project with the kids when I’d rather just do my own thing, packing for a hike when I’d rather be watching a movie etc. etc…

    I think what I’m trying to say is living according to your intentions, which is very fulfilling, takes a lot of discipline. At least for me. And I think I feel a post coming on….

    • I could not agree more, Renee: “The difficulty lies not so much in setting the priorities, at least for me that comes fairly easily, but living by them.”

      The discipline is something I am very much still learning. The balance of grace on myself and then wanting to not let myself off the hook to grow … so hard. I love the way you have been writing about things related to this, already.

      I agree about the semantics, too. Another way I describe it is the difference between having margins and white space in our lives and being too busy. There are lots of ways to say it, but most of us know when are living it.

      I am excited to read your post on it! 🙂

  12. jennifer says:

    So sad! I actually am ‘penciling’ in time to read to my two young boys! I switched homeschool programs this year (to sonlight) and was so drawn by the fact that we sat down and read/learned together. I also am in summer recalibration, and am paring down our belongings, setting up permanent organization, and getting into a cleaning routine earlier in the a.m. so I can be available to my boys. I have told them to ‘go play’ far too long!!!!

  13. I will miss reading your articles. This one particularly struck me. I have 3 little ones and I definitely feel busy all the time, frustrated too because I want to enjoy them more. You totally hit the nail on the head and put into words exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you!

  14. This post seems to be custom made for me. In May, I resigned from a career to become a full-time Mom to my two pre-school children. In September, I will start home schooling my oldest daughter for kindergarten. This summer has been one of change and transition, and finding out what is best for me and my family as we embrace this simpler lifestyle.
    Mary @ A Simple Twist of Faith’s latest post: 7 Quick Takes Friday Volume 5

  15. Thanks so much for this, a reminder I needed yet again, and bookmarked to savor in the future. I’m a pro at busy, and have discovered the joys of full since I started homeschooling, but it’s so easy to default back to measuring myself by visible accomplishments. That’s not life :).

  16. Beautiful post! Something I definitely needed to hear!

  17. Beautifully written. I love your heart. This is the hardes thing to learn, and I’m still learning. I love what you said about living with no regrets, and getting to the end of your life with beautiful people around you, full of wonderful memories. But the dirty dishes and piles of laundry are so loud! Thank you for reminding us that sometimes it’s OK to let things go so we can focus on what is really important.

    I’ll miss you here on Simple Homeschool!

  18. Thanks so much for this great insight. It is exactly what I needed to hear today as I contemplate how to give more to my children and my husband.

  19. Loved your thoughts…thanks! It really is okay to let some things go. The very exercise itself of discerning each day just what stays and what goes is the process that builds the beautiful tapestry of our lives.
    Jeri Graybill’s latest post: Hallmark Movie- PORTAL- Randy Feldman

  20. Misha, thank you for all of your posts. I have bookmarked many of them that have been so thought-provoking, inspiring, and helpful to me.
    Rachel’s latest post: Two Words for Simple Home Decor- Functional or Personal

  21. I don’t quite know where to side on this…

    My mother – a single Mom of 3 – fell very much in the “being busy” category. I recognize that this was, in part, out of necessity. She had 2, 3, sometimes even 4 jobs to keep ahead of the bills, keep clothes on our backs, and keep food on the table. Her perpetual busy-ness and exhausting need to do things thoroughly and completely defined her – she didn’t know the meaning of “shortcut.” While this was exasperating when I was growing up, her style of getting things done for sake of the family regardless of the personal cost has, frankly, been something I (as an adult, and even more so as a parent) came to hold her in high esteem for.

    But it’s with great sorrow that I also recognize how exhausting and, for the most part, joyless her life was. It pains me to know that even after us kids were grown and out of the house, she never knew how to slow down long enough to experience enjoyment. She never allowed herself to stop being busy long enough to do the things she wanted to do rather than the things she felt she needed to do.

    Since her passing and my becoming a Dad (within the same month, a bit more than two years ago), I’ve felt like I needed to live by that blueprint, both to be a successful parent and to honor her sacrifices. So, I’ve struggled to find a balance: between feeling obligated to live up to Mom’s tremendous work ethic and tenacity yet knowing that I’m not willing to shortchange myself of the enjoyment of life or being thoroughly involved in my son’s childhood. I definitely am more able to let things go than Mom was, but sometimes feel slight pangs of guilt for doing so.
    Rob O.’s latest post: Productivity Is At An All-Time Low!

  22. Beautifully put! According to the meyres briggs peronality test I am an NF (intitive feeler) we are gifted in many ways. One way is to know how others are doing emotionally and otherwise via my intuition…an impression. It is like having a sixth sense. Knowing all this info can lead often to an overwelming flow of input about the needs in others around me. It can lead to being driven by this input over directing life myself. I have learned this freedom of priorities you write about out of sheer survival when I was plundged into a series of events that overwhelmed me all the time. Too many conflicting needs too little time. How do I know which way to go. This was a Miserable time in my life. Today I would stand a top a mountain a shout as loudly as possible how helpful and real your post is.”Come read this post it will change your life”
    There is rest in doing and peace in movement when you have decided, when you have singled out what is important and you sacrifice to keep these things in the center. It is really loyality at it’s best. In my own life this freedom began with being loyal to God, what He was saying to me…leaving often the other people to walk alone with Him (or so it seemed). Then once I married it involved being loyal to my husband,his personality, his preferences his ideas and dreams had to come before those of friends and family. Then I had kids and they took part of that loyalty too. Each new commitment more ridgedly defined my life but as you said so well in one of your posts on your blog it just redefines the perameters of my happiness.
    Thank you for writing this.


  23. I think “being full” in the sense of this post has a lot to do with knowing what the individuals purpose is, and having a direction to serve this purpose.
    Problem is, that most either do not bother to get clear about their purpose, or, if they have found it, don’t attribute enough time to it (for example by thinking they need a job, instead of thinking “how can I make a business opportunity out of being full?”
    PerryP@How to lose weight’s latest post: Never Feel Full- What You Can Do When You Never Feel Full

  24. Every body understands that men’s life seems to be not very cheap, nevertheless we require money for various issues and not every person earns big sums money. So to get some credit loans or just car loan would be a proper way out.

  25. I’m a big fan of one’s writing, mind if I add your RSS feed to my reader?

  26. I love this! Full vs. busy is a very useful way to think about the activities and such that we allow into our lives. It’s also easier to say no to things when I think of our life as being full instead of too busy. It’s abundance, not chaos. Good stuff.
    Annie Reneau’s latest post: Make the Call. Pooh Says.

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