We can choose to be busy or remarkable, but probably not both

Don’t say you’re busy, say you’re getting lots done.
If the latter isn’t true, the former is irrelevant.

Space, Money & Time

Here is a little thought experiment…

Imagine somebody who fills their house to overflowing with stuff, shuffling clutter from one room to another just in time as each space is needed during the day, leaving no spare room to fit in anything else?

How do we judge them?

Then, imagine somebody who manages their finances right on the edge, spending every last cent of their credit card limit, transferring money from one bank account to another just in time to cover repayments, never quite sure if their next purchase will tip them into the red?

Neither of those sounds ideal, right?

Now, imagine somebody who manages their time like this – i.e. fills their days with work, constantly juggles their to-do list as urgent tasks come and go, and leaves no spare time to do any one thing well?

That’s also not ideal. But it might sound familiar!

One thing nearly all of us have in common is: we’re busy.

The really curious thing about this is how we romanticise it:

Them: How have you been?
Us (beaming with pride): Oh, you know, busy busy!

We constantly boast about having no spare time, in a way we never would if we had no space or no money. But, why?

It always feels like there is never enough time.

Maybe we’ve just normalised it. Is this now what we expect each other to say? Like the exhausted and knowing nods exchanged between two parents of newborns, safe in the knowledge that neither is getting enough sleep, perhaps we take comfort from connecting with others in the same tough situation.

Maybe it’s just less work for us to focus on inputs, than to look for evidence of outputs? It’s easy to count the number of hours we spend at work, the number of meetings in our calendar or the number of emails in our inbox. We often assume that if we are busy then lots of things must be getting completed. It is, in other words, easy to confuse activity for progress.

Or maybe we’re just reluctant to be honest. As an experiment I’ve tried to consciously swap out the words I use when I am asked how I am - rather than flattering myself with negatives (busy, stretched, slammed, etc) I looked for positive alternatives (full - as in “days full of interesting and awesome things”, focussed, engaged). But I’m only really kidding myself I suspect. It has at least forced me to reflect on how excited I am to say that I’m “busy”.

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that by now we’d all be working 15 hour weeks.1 He was actually correct, but not in the way he expected. Most of us struggle to do three hours of productive work per day. How else would we find the time for social media and reality television otherwise?

The more interesting question is why we fill so many hours with non-productive work.

I wonder if the goal of always being busy is actaully part of the problem. The cake is a lie.

Doing a great job nearly always means focus, and focus means saying no, and so doing less.

We can be busy or remarkable, but probably not both.

Which do we choose?

First things first?

We don’t have to think too hard about our priorities. Just pay attention to what we do first each day.

Our real priorities are revealed not stated.

A stated preference is what we say we want to do.
A revealed preference is what we actually do.

Often what we do betrays what we say.

Our stated priorities are hopeful, but our revealed priorities are honest.

For example…2

I want to play tennis.
I want to learn te reo.
I want to get more sleep.
I want to be a good manager.
I want to spend more time with my kids.
But I’m also very busy.

When we’re designing and building a product or service that we hope others will use and pay for and tell their friends about, it’s helpful to listen for stated preferences, but it’s much more important to watch for revealed preferences.

We should never base our optimism entirely on kind words. We need to always cut through and find some action that demonstrates that people mean what they say.

And we should apply that same filter to how we choose to fill our days. We can say we’re busy, but if we’re not getting lots done those are just words.

Being busy is the default and by far the most common choice. It easy to assume that in order to be remarkable we first need to be busy. But, important to realise that being busy all the time makes it less likely there is any time and space to do remarkable work, which nearly always requires larger blocks of dedicated focus.

Beware the barrenness of a busy life.

— Socrates

Wasting Away

I realise this isn’t a new or unique observation.

Tim Kreider wrote an excellent Opinion piece called The ‘Busy’ Trap published in the New York Times way back in 2012.

Maybe you’re too busy to read the whole thing now? So, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll quote from it extensively:

[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:

Most of us measure ourselves based on inputs – i.e. how much time we spent working, or how full our calendar is.

Other, smarter, people measure themselves based on outputs – i.e. how much progress we made, and what we created or learned in the process. In other words, what was the return on the 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 things completed and out in the world actually turns out to be a huge competitive advantage, because it’s so uncommon.

However, when we step back we notice that there is a third level (and isn’t there always another level!) where we stop measuring ourselves altogether and rather than being deformed by our busyness optimise for enjoyment.

Obviously the ability to do this depends on our circumstances. For most, earning a living means spending a large 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 third 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 over the years have often been the most memorable ones.

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

How about you?

Have you been keeping busy?

  1. Source: Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren, 1930. ↩︎

  2. The examples in this list is inspired by Randi Zukerberg’s theory, which suggests we can choose at most three of these five things: friendships, work, family time, staying fit, & getting enough sleep)

    See: Long Enough ↩︎

  3. Of course, what matters is how much sleep we actually get, not how much we think we get or how much we’d like to get. Consider this study of athletes in Australia:

    The researchers surveyed the sleep habits of 175 athletes from 12 different Australian national teams, and monitored their actual sleep with a wrist band for a couple of weeks. The main conclusion is that a startling number of these athletes, who are presumably performing herculean feats in their training, are falling way short of their sleep goals.

    On average these athletes said they subjectively needed 8.3 hours of sleep per night to feel rested. But when monitored it turned out they actually only got 6.7 hours of sleep per night.

    Source: Elite Athletes Don’t Sleep As Much As You Think ↩︎

  4. It would be interesting to follow up with executives who left jobs to “spend more time with their family”, six months later, to see if they actually did.
    And, have you noticed: nobody ever asks the family if they want to spend more time with a former CEO or politician who gives that as their excuse for leaving their position. ↩︎

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