It’s a while since I wrote.

Time to think is scarce.

I’ve been busy.

You too probably.

If so, I strongly recommend you put aside your busyness for a few minutes, and read this, from the New York Times blog. It might change your mind:

The ‘Busy’ Trap

If you’ll excuse me I’ll quote from it extensively:
(maybe you’re too busy to read the whole thing?)

“[Those who boast about being busy are] almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence”

“What [my busy friend] had mistakenly assumed was her personality — driven, cranky, anxious and sad — turned out to be a deformative effect of her environment. It’s not as if any of us wants to live like this, any more than any one person wants to be part of a traffic jam or stadium trampling or the hierarchy of cruelty in high school — it’s something we collectively force one another to do.”

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

“I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.”


I observe three levels to this:

Some people measure themselves based on inputs – i.e. how much time you spend working, how full your calendar is, how many emails you respond to?

Other, smarter, people measure themselves based on outputs – i.e. how much progress did you make, what did you create or learn in the process? In other words, what was the return on time invested?

Those who understand this, and act on it, get much further without working so long and hard by cutting out the unnecessary stuff. It’s incredible, but just getting something done actually turns out to be a huge competitive advantage, because it’s so uncommon.

(I wrote a bit about the difference between these two levels in a previous post)

However, I’ve only recently noticed that there is a third level beyond this (there is always another level!) where you stop measuring yourself altogether and rather than being deformed by your busyness optimise for enjoyment.

Obviously your ability to do this depends on your circumstances. For most earning a living means spending some amount of time on work, one way or another. While everybody has obligations, I don’t really have that excuse. I found myself a few years ago in the unusual position where money was no longer the biggest constraint. But, still that mindset turns out to be a hard habit to break. So I continue to allow my days to fill with busy and this level remains mostly aspirational to me.

The people who are best at this even seem to be comfortable wasting time!

I’m not sure about you, but the precious few moments I’ve wasted recently have been easily the best ones.

If only I wasn’t so busy, I’d definitely waste more time.

How about you?

9 thoughts on “Busy”

  1. I’ve read that NYTimes article a few times this week and realised I’m occasionally guilty of some of the traits in myself. Good wake up call. But I think your point towards the end comes down to what is “time wasted”? Being busy isn’t bad. Being busy being busy is :) You can be busy meditating, busy jogging, busy with your kids, busy reading, busy learning, busy laughing etc or busy working. But for sure, there is an endemic “I’ve been too busy” excuse for not pausing and addressing an otherwise shortcoming i.e social life or worse, emptiness or loneliness. Busy-ness should not be validation of time well spent.
    However as a self-confessed ‘squeeze as much into every second as possible’ having had people dear to me taken away far too soon, while the “I’m too busy” lament is a sorry and woeful one, but the “i’m bored” is inexcusable. IMHO :)

  2. Hi Rowan, I find only boring people get bored, time wasters are wasting time (usually other peoples)…for me I have personally tried to internally change the repetitive thought pattern of “being busy”…life is busy, thinking strategically, creatively or just simple act of excogitation – is a lot of busy synaptic connections getting busy.
    saying to someone that you are so busy – is boring and no matter how you say it or in what tone – it does either of two things…either creates mutual time wasting by both parties running through their busy lists etc….and often quite unwittingly implies that you are handling more, juggling lots and you’re not even allowing yourself to take a moment and actively choose to say…greet a person with a smile, or listen to that small bit of news that is clearly a highlight and god forbid engage with the person infront of you…so you might be busy but you are wasting your own time in some sort of limbo…or Dr Suess would say – the waiting place.
    I actively move towards, or try to, get this ‘busy’ existence out into the open in less than four words, ensure that I respectfully and inclusively, with just two words, acknowledge this other person’s own busy state…but then move the F*** along to how are you, family, news, etc even engage by listening to a dilema that might be having…cause if I am not doing any of that – then I may as well get my notebook out and make a list to stay on top of my schedule…but remain out of touch. Great blog – sorry for the rant folks. Smiles, Han

  3. It’s this focus on busyness and the consequent myth of multi-tasking greatness that has led the team at Snapper to use personal Kanban. It might sound a bit ridiculous but personal Kanban actually did help us to work in a calmer and more productive way.

    We have developed our own personal boards that we’re now sharing with others. If you’re interested there’s more info here: http://www.kanbanfor1.com/info/what-is-this

  4. You know what I spent a lot of time doing these days? Watching the sky. Clouds and light. The sun coming up and going down. Thinking quietly. Hours and hours over the past few months … and not a minute of it wasted.

  5. It’s funny Courtney, just last night I was thinking “I don’t spend enough time watching the horizon [as in the actual physical horizon]”. My resolution was to schedule this into my life… which feels weird but necesary or else that times gets eaten by the detritus of life (not saying that life=detritus, but that life can become detritus without care).

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