Introverts Are Always Busy—and That’s a Good Thing

Americans are such obsessive doers that every trend article about how busy we are ends up shoving readers against a wall. We’re tagged as (1) frantic jugglers or (2) bored retirees and empty nesters or (3) energetic sixty- and seventy-year-olds embarked on a "meaningful" second career.

In his New York Times piece “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says too many of us rush around boasting about how busy we are in order to fend off existential emptiness. Undoubtedly, some of us do. But what if you aren’t a boasting personality or have a very different definition of what busyness means?

Woman at riveting machine (1942); Library of Congress

Take, for example, me. Yes, I’m busy. On the surface, I’m in the first category: I have a ten-year-old child and husband and friends. I have parents with degenerative illnesses who live 3,000 miles away. I’m such a frequent traveler that I have Premier status on United Airlines. I teach part-time. And—oh, yes—I run an online literary magazine and nonprofit organization.

Of course I feel "crazy busy" and overextended. I even complain about it. But if anybody in my current life dared to respond with That’s a good problem to have or Better than the opposite (what Kreider calls stock responses that are “a kind of congratulation”), I’d be tempted to slap the glad-hander.

I am busy. Some of this is self-imposed, but much of the juggling has to do with family and financial demands. I could make a feminist argument here, though I won’t. I will say that competing demands can make me internally nuts at times, distracting me from the work I love. But my people, unruly as they are, give my life meaning. They matter. I haven’t simply convinced myself that I’ve got to keep busy in order to fight off inner emptiness.

"Our Busy Old Women" (1899); Library of Congress

I’m a writer. Like many literary and artistic types, that means I’m an introvert. That also means that I’m prone to analyzing and reflecting on almost any molecule that crosses my path. Forever and always, I have contended with a constantly chattering, teeming internal world.

The inside of my head is busy, busy, busy—possibly as a defense against difficult events in my life, or because I’m more comfortable fantasizing than facing stressful situations “out there.” But I’ve never felt empty.

In her 2012 book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain argues that Americans have been besotted with the extrovert ideal since the early 1900s. In their most classic form, extroverts are exuberant fast-talkers who favor action over thinking. They’re salespeople. In Cain’s account, it’s no accident that the Culture of Personality (desired traits: “Magnetic…Stunning…Energetic”) replaced the earlier Culture of Character (“Duty…Honor…Integrity”) just as U.S. corporations were on the rise.

Cain notes that "Introverts and extroverts also direct their attention differently." Referring to one study about problem solving, she writes:

"[T]he introverts tend to sit around wondering about things, imagining things, recalling events from their past, and making plans for the future. The extroverts are more likely to focus on what’s happening around them. It’s as if extroverts are seeing ‘what is’ while their introverted peers are asking ‘what if.’"

Maybe today’s extroverts are desperately scrambling to keep busy because America has let them down. Who can blame them? But when I think about the "busy trap" problem as an introvert, Kreider’s humorous take seems like just one more round of American extroversion drowning out the quieter among us.

He’s another self-confessed writer. I’m with him when he argues that “[t]he space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections….” The thing is, this isn’t “idleness.” It’s a legitimate work style for introverts. Yet, here’s Kreider on his “own resolute idleness”:

“I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.”

Well, I agree that four or five hours of writing a day is plenty. But are most writers lazy—really? This is just aping the extrovert’s point of view. Even when he’s taking his leisurely afternoon bike rides, I’d hazard that he’s thinking about something. Kreider is making fun of himself and his own entitled lifestyle, but in doing so he manages to erase what it means to be a busy writer or a thinker or just an internally-driven human being.

He refers to the “present hysteria” about busyness, but this kind of inflated phrasing (media-ready to hook glazed eyeballs) and his claims of not being busy deny that anything important is going on inside our heads.

Family making hair brushes (1912); Library of Congress

For the most part, I love all my mental busyness, although I’ve taken up meditation in the last decade. (Every once in awhile, I want everyone inside to shut up.) My struggles from college onward have always involved finding enough time to write—that is, for getting the space I need in my outer life in order to retreat inward into my very own busy maelstrom.

An extrovert—or an introvert columnist jumping to the extrovert tune—might call this my need to do nothing. But I don’t call thinking doing nothing.

Long ago, I asked my now-husband, who is an extrovert, if he could handle living with a writer. “When it looks like I’m just staring into space,” I told him,” I’m writing. I’m actually doing something.”

That was in the late-1980s. I wasn’t hysterical. I wasn’t an automaton responding to the latest cultural trend. I also wasn’t prescient. I was just mentally busy me, and the guy married me anyway.

"'The sweetest lady I ever met....' But unlike Whistler's immortalized parent, the mother of the Smuda family spends little time in an armchair," (1942); Library of Congress


Publishing Information: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (Crown, 2012). The quotes about character traits appear on pp. 23-24. The problem-solving quote appears on p. 168.

For all introverts in need of a boost, Quiet is fun and often inspirational. Cain talks a lot about her own introvert struggles. Her wry description of attending a Tony Robbins workshop is worth the price of a Kindle download.

Art Credits: All the images in this post are in the public domain and appear courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

  • “A girl riveting machine operator at the Douglas Aircraft Company plant joins sections of wing ribs to reinforce the inner wing assemblies of B-17F heavy bombers, Long Beach, Calif.” by photographer Alfred T. Palmer, 1942.
  • “Our Busy Old Women” by J.S. Pughe, chromolithograph published by Keppler & Schwarzmann in 1899. LOC description: “Print shows a large monument constructed ‘A.D. 1898’ showing statues of President William McKinley labeled ‘Administration,’ General William R. Shafter labeled ‘Army,’ and Admiral George Dewey labeled ‘Navy,’ and a plaque that states ‘To Commemorate the Spanish-American War which has raised the United States Army and Navy to a proud position not only in the eyes of Americans but in the eyes of the World’; also, a gang of ‘Old Women’ [various journalists] with ropes trying to pull down the statues.”
  • “6 P.M. Making hair-brushes” by photographer Lewis Wickes Hine, 1912. Additional description by Hine: “Hausner family, 310 E. 71 St., N.Y. Frank is 6 years old, and John is 12. The mother had a sore throat and wore a great rag rapped around it, but she took it off for the photo. They said they all (including the 6-year-old) worked until 10 P.M. when busy. Their neighbor corroborated this. She said, ‘It’s a whole lot better for the boys than doin’ nothin’.’ The mother said the night work hurts their eyes, and John said so too. He was not very enthusiastic about the beauties of work. All together, they make about $2 a week.”
  • “Women at war (Mrs. Smuda)” by photographer Howard Liberman, 1942. Additional description by Liberman: “The sweetest lady I ever met…Dear Mother, I won’t forget.” So reads this pillow, sent Mrs. Smuda by her youngest son now at camp. But unlike Whistler’s immortalized parent, the mother of the Smuda family spends little time in an armchair. She’s much too busy working for Uncle Sam at the Frankford Arsenal and taking active care of her home and family after hours.”


10 thoughts on “Introverts Are Always Busy—and That’s a Good Thing

  1. Martha,
    Busyness does seem to be the badge of honor these days. And I well remember my busiest days when I had two children at home, a full-time job, was also freelancing on the side, and recovering from cancer.

    These days I’d like to be a bit busier, but your piece (and Kreiders) make me feel a bit better about myself. It is true that my best thinking occurs when my body is busy doing something else. My favorite place to figure out a writing problem is when I am in the pool, swimming laps.

    And as for “the guy” he’s a lucky one and he knows it.

  2. Thanks, Judith. I’m curious: To whom does busyness seem like a badge of honor? Extroverts or introverts? In my life, it’s only the extroverts, especially those I don’t know very well. I’ve got very mixed feelings about all this, because I love my own writing projects and TW, but they often tip me into a distracted state,one that leaves me feeling existentially scattered rather than full of meaning.

    P.S. Your comment came through just fine…!

  3. Pingback: The Busy Guilt Trap | Alexandra Wrote

  4. I think its the extroverts — or at least people who are focused on pleasing others. I had a boss who used to loudly brag about his 80-hour work week. He made a lot of busy work for himself, but felt those hours showed how committed and indispensable he was. When we were on some gawdawful retreat and had to discuss the results of our Meyers-Briggs he came out as an introvert — but told me that he knows people see him as an extrovert.

    In that situation, an introvert may be more driven by their internal voice rather than trying to live up to some company standard. (And I think you know how well that worked for me.)

    I just really appreciated your identifying mental busyness and a productive way to spend time. I’ve been struggling lately with my own doubts and worries about my own usefulness and I’m glad to know that I may not be the slacker I appear to be.

    And yes, I’ve figured out that the captcha codes work much better if you don’t add in spaces.

  5. Did Quiet mention the decline of the extended family? That would be my explanation for the rise of the Culture of Personality. In an extended family, you can be the quiet one in the group and still be part of it because birth determines membership. In the modern world of DIY social lives and families of choice, membership is determined by participation, so if you don’t get out there and work to build interpersonal connections, you’re not going to have any.

    This theory is not separate from the connection with the rise of corporations. Before corporations, most businesses were family businesses. If you didn’t work in the family business, you found work, or backing if you were going into business for yourself, through family connections. Corporations can’t hire this way; they’re too big. They try to hire by merit, but that involves judging the applicant’s self-presentation, so job seekers must, as many job-hunting manuals put it, sell themselves. In that sense, most of us are salespeople now because we have to be. In the days of the Culture of Character, selling oneself was a euphemism for prostitution, but now it’s the way we live.

  6. Judith and Joan, I think you’d both like reading Quiet, for different reasons. Let me know if you’d like to borrow my copy.

    Judith, the author makes very clear—and I would agree—that introverts often function in the world as pseudo-extroverts. So your ex-boss could have seemed like a total backslapper and still scored as an “I” on the Myers-Briggs. Maybe his real preference is to sit around at home and read a book, but he feels called on to fake boisterous sociability in a business setting. Most business settings demand that, and lots of people fit in as best they can—but that’s certainly one huge reason for why I hate to work in offices. I don’t like expending so much energy on faking it.

    Joan, that notion of DIY families and the level of self-presentation required is an interesting one, and it’s not addressed in this book. Quiet focuses more on workplace dynamics than home life, because its general slant is a corporate one. I tend to see the decline of the traditional extended family as part of a whole bunch of other social trends that were kicked off by industrialization and Progressive Era politics. I suspect that there were a lot of forces at play, including the rise of the corporation and the transformation of the family. But the need to perform and create a persona to create your own family—fascinating. And a little scary.

  7. According to , there are as many introverts as eatrxverts. While I’m inclined to believe that statistic isn’t entirely correct, I don’t think it’s that far off the mark. Introversion/extraversion is a spectrum, and if you put down a line in the middle, I’m sure you’ll find a significant part of the population on the more introverted end of the spectrum. We don’t notice because of selection bias: the loudest are most easily heard, tautologically, and so we notice those whom we’d be expected to notice (those making themselves heard, i.e., eatrxverts) while those we don’t notice are those we wouldn’t expect to notice (the quiet ones).You’re right that the normative behavior, the behavior that is expected and promoted by society, is extraverted behavior. But I wouldn’t concede that introversion is odd . That would be like saying homosexuality is odd. Homosexuality isn’t odd, not even technically odd . It’s not unusual. In this day and age, it’s odd to regard it as odd. I’m sure there are as many, if not more introverts than there are homosexuals, and I don’t think we should regard either as unusual, odd, strange, weird, non-normal, etc. I understand that you use the word odd in the way it would be odd to meet a guy who could shoot milk out of his eyes or benchpress 300 kg: as something not necessarily wrong or creepy, but certainly out of the ordinary. And I don’t really see introversion as anything unusual.

  8. Thank you Martha, for validating my propensity to gravitate toward “doing nothing” (daydreaming, thinking of future plans,etc). I’ve come to accept that I am an introvert, although as you and Judith point out, us introverts often need to function as pseudo-extroverts in the workplace, which is certainly the case for me. I think I don’t mind this so much, though, because when I go to work it gets me out of my own head for a bit which isn’t such a bad thing. And then I can go back to my daydreaming…

    Also, I understand about feeling “existentially scattered” rather than full of meaning, but maybe you shouldn’t be so hard on yourself; after all with being a parent, taking care of your own parents, teaching, and founding a magazine as well as pursuing your own artistic goals it seems to me you are doing quite a lot. Even people who’s lives seem models of purpose and meaning probably engage each day in plenty of what they would consider time-killing drudgery. And often it seems as if the artists and writers who left their mark on the world, also left a trail of human pain and neglected obligations in their wake, as they focused on creating their “meaningful” achievements.

  9. Ken—how nice to hear from you again, given that you have every reason to be as distracted as I am. Well, yes, I am being hard on myself. I especially appreciate your comment about less distracted artists and writers who have left a trail of personal misery in their wakes.

    Anyway, I’m thinking of pulling together a whole issue on “Distraction” at Talking Writing. Interested in doing a piece for it?

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