10 Ways to Say You’re Busy Without Being Rude

“Busy” is a popular English word — but not in the way that many learners think.

For example, “busy” has become a common response to “How are you?” (“I’m doing well! Just busy studying for my exams”). Research has even found telling people about what keeps you busy has been common in Christmas greeting cards.

But if you use this word to tell a coworker why you can’t take their call or your boss why you can’t attend a meeting, what you’re really saying, according to the BBC, is “‘I’m not very good at prioritising my time and, at the moment, you’re not a priority at all.”

So it’s safer to avoid using the word “busy.” It’s blunt and often just not the right word. Below are 10 English expressions that’ll do the job much better.

1. I’m preoccupied.

Imagine someone knocking on your office door while you’re having a meeting. Or imagine getting a call while you’re driving to work. In either case, you can say you were “preoccupied,” because you were already (“pre-”) occupied (busy doing something).

  • Sorry, I’m a little preoccupied at the moment. Can I call you back later?
  • No worries about the late reply. I understand you’re preoccupied with more pressing matters at the moment.

2. I’m tied up.

Think of each task you need to work on as a rope. Each time you take on a new task, another rope is tied around you until you’re all “tied up” and not free to work on anything else.

Man with hands tied.
  • “I’m all tied up with this project. Try asking Janet for help.”
  • “Sorry I was unable to return your call today. I was tied up in meetings all day.”

3. I have a lot on my plate.

If your plate is full, there’s no room for you to put more food on it. In the context of life, this means you can’t take any more work.

A plate with a traditional English breakfast with sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, tomatoes and hash browns.
  • I’d love to help, but I’ve got too much on my plate right now.
  • That’s a nice idea, but our team already has so much on our plate right now, I don’t think we’ll be able to work on it until at least next year.

4. I’m juggling a lot right now.

Juggling” takes a lot of energy and focus and it’s easy to make mistakes. So if you’re busy with a lot of things, it can feel like you’re “juggling” them.

A street performer juggling three balls.
  • I’d love to help, but I’m juggling two jobs on top of taking care of my newborn son right now. Sorry!
  • No matter how much stuff I’m juggling, I always have time for online English lessons, because I can take them anytime and anywhere.

5. I don’t have the bandwidth.

Bandwidth” is a technical term that has become a popular way to tell someone you don’t have the time for something.

  • “Tim, I don’t have the bandwidth right now, sorry!”
  • “I don’t have the bandwidth to handle that right now. You could try asking me about that again in October though.”

6. I’m spread pretty thin.

If you only have a little butter to spread on a piece of toast, it’ll become a very thin layer of butter. So if you’re “spread thin,” it means you’re spreading your limited time and energy among a lot of tasks.

A piece of toast with a thin layer of butter spread on it.
  • I’m sorry, but I’m afraid I can’t take on another commitment this semester. I’ve already spread myself too thin with two part-time jobs on top of my extra courses.
  • I realize that your resources on your team are spread thin at the moment, but please do keep this initiative in mind.

7. I’m swamped.

It’s easy to get stuck in a swamp or even sink into one! If you’re “swamped” with work, it’s like you’re stuck in a pile of work or sinking into it.

A swamp with trees growing from the water.
  • We’re launching our marketing campaign this week, so I’m really really swamped. But starting on Sunday, I’ll be quite free.
  • It’s my first day back at work, so I’m swamped. Can I get back to you on this next week?

8. I’m buried in work.

Imagine you’re buried in piles and piles of work and you can’t escape.

A hand of a person that is buried under different clock faces.
  • Our team is low on manpower, so we’re constantly buried in work.
  • There’s no way I can take a vacation right now. I’m buried in deadlines.

People also say “I’m drowning (in work)” or “I’m snowed under (with work).”

9. I’m up to my ears. 

Think of a pile of work that is stacked all the way up to your ears and giving you anxiety. 

  • As a secretary, I’m always up to my ears in paperwork.
  • We’re up to our ears in work before the holiday season.

You can use this one for many situations. For example, you can be up to your ears in laundry (if you haven’t washed your clothes in a while) or debt (if there’s a lot you need to pay off). 

10. Things are really hectic.

“Hectic” means that there are a lot of things going on that are difficult to control. Imagine all your tasks frantically flying around you, and you have the right idea.

  • My schedule is quite hectic these days, but let’s catch up next time you’re here.
  • I realize things are really hectic on your end with the PR scandal, but I must remind you that your payments are weeks overdue.

Keep in mind you can’t say “I’m hectic.” “Hectic” describes a schedule, your life, and things in your life. It can also describe periods of time, such as a day (“it’s been a hectic day”) and a week (“this week has been hectic”). But hectic never describes people.

Too busy to sit down and study?

We hear you. Studying takes a lot of time, and not all of us have that. That’s why our English lessons are just 25 minutes, and you can take them any time of day no matter where you are. 

Plus, our English tutors aren’t just experts in the language. They’re also experienced in many different fields, from sales and graphic design to medicine and music. So you’ll definitely learn English that’s most relevant to you.

Your first lesson is free, so why not give us a try?