Today, let’s learn some excellent alternatives to the adjective “busy!”

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You may have noticed that over the last couple of weeks I’ve been producing a few less podcast episodes, and updating my Instagram less regularly. Well, there is a simple reason – I’ve been busy! Very busy! I’ve had to write and research academic papers on contemporary Japanese trade unions and government policies for working parents; I’ve been teaching English classes three days a week; I’ve travelled to some different cities; watched a lot of Marvel movies; and I also try to write three podcasts a week! So, I’ve been swamped with work, and may have bitten off more than I can chew! 

Busy is an adjective with several different meanings: it can mean that you have a lot of things to do (as in “I’m too busy to play football this afternoon”); it can mean that you’re concentrating on a particular activity or object of attention (as in “He’s busy preparing to take the IELTS exam”); or if you’re talking about a place or time busy means full of activity (as in “The train station is busiest in the morning”)!

Busy is a very commonly used word, and therefore I think it will be really useful for all of you to learn a few alternative ways of saying busy! So, today I will introduce a few synonyms, idioms, and expressions that you can add to your vocabulary.  


You’ve likely heard engaged used to refer to the promise or agreement to get married, but did you know it can also mean busy? You can describe someone as being engaged in a particular activity, or simply as engaged. It comes from a French word meaning pledge or promise, so in this case it is as though you have promised to carry out a particular task or activity! For example, “I’m sorry, but the manager is engaged at the moment. He’ll call you back later.” Moreover, if your phone line is engaged, it is busy and you are talking to someone else!


An alternative to saying someone is busy with something, is to describe someone as being occupied with it. If someone is occupied with an activity, thought, or anything similar, it is taking up their energy, time, and attention! For example, “She has been occupied with her school work recently – she doesn’t even have time to eat properly.” Moreover, we can also use the word preoccupied. If someone is preoccupied with something, it means they are really busy and giving a lot of mental energy to thinking or worrying about something. For instance, “newspapers are preoccupied with the love lives of celebrities!


Engrossed can be used to describe your action when you are really busy with something. If something engrosses you, it keeps your mind busy and takes all of your attention. You can be engrossed in reading a book, engrossed in your work, engrossed in lots of different things. The only thing you are doing or thinking about is the thing that engrosses you! 

A lot on one’s plate

Let’s move on to a few idioms and sayings that describe being busy! First up, to have a lot on one’s plate. Having a lot on your plate means that you have a significant number of tasks or jobs that you need to handle and deal with. Imagine you go to an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant – every dish looks delicious so you decide to try a little bit of everything. On your plate, you would have 20 or 30 different types of dish – it is going to take you a while to eat all that food. You would have a lot on your plate! A few years ago when I was studying in ther UK, some of my friends would work 2 or 3 jobs while they were students – they had a lot on their plate! Or parents of new-born children certainly have a lot on their plates!


If you are slammed it means you are extremely busy and overwhelmed. Slammed is a common slang term to describe when you have too much work – when you are overloaded! For example, “two of my colleagues quit this week so I’m totally slammed with work right now!” Or, “I have 5 deadlines before the winter break – I’m too slammed to take a break!”

To be snowed under

Just like slammed, snowed under means you are overwhelmed by the amount of work you have. Another meaning of this idiom is to be completely surrounded by snow so that you can’t go anywhere or move outside. Now, instead of actual snow, imagine if you were surrounded by work, tasks, and jobs you need to do. In this case, we can also use snowed under! Snowed under is often used in the passive, and a noun can be used between “snow” and “under.” For instance, “I’ve been snowed under at work recently,” or “My boss keep snowing me under with lots of different reports.”


Again, just like slammed and snowed under, swamped means that you are overwhelmed with the high amount of work you are required to do! You are really busy with the tasks and activities you need to do! For instance, “Doctors were swamped during the beginning of the pandemic!” or “I can’t got out tonight – I’m swamped with work right now!”

To be up to one’s eyeballs/neck in something 

Here we have two very similar idioms: to be up to one’s eyeballs in something and to be up to one’s neck in something. Both of these idioms mean that you are really busy with doing something, especially if you are overwhelmed with it and there is too much to do! For instance, “I’m up to my eyeballs in paperwork right now” or “I’m up to my neck in work right now so can’t meet you for dinner tonight!”

To bite off more than one can chew

If you bite off more than you can chew you take on more than you can handle. You take on too many responsibilities, and probably can’t fully accomplish the tasks. It is often used in a negative imperative sense, for example “Don’t bite off more than you can chew!” Last year, when I was working two jobs, taking five graduate school classes, and running this podcast, I definitely bit off more than I could chew. Another example is You should seriously think about joining that sports club… you already play in a band and volunteer for charity. Don’t bite off more than you can chew!” 

Busy as a beaver/bee

If you are as busy as a beaver or as busy as a bee, it means you are very active, busy, and hardworking. You do a lot of things, and always keep yourself busy with different things! These phrases refer to beaver’s reputation for being very hardworking animals, always building dams, while bees are always gathering pollen! For example, “I’ve just started a new job, and I’m as busy as a bee right now” or “Between working two part-time jobs, volunteering on the weekends, and looking after his little brother, Sam’s been busy as a beaver this summer.” These are the most common forms of this phrase, but there are actually a lot of less common but still used similar phrases (often in the USA)! For example, busy as a one-armed paper hanger; busy as Grand Central Station; busy as a cat on a hot tin roof; busy as a fish peddler in Lent; busy as a cranberry merchant (at Thanksgiving); busy as popcorn on a skillet.

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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