Busy Is Stupid

These days, we hardly have any time to do things because we are trying to do everything and be everywhere. We are constantly doing things to keep ourselves “busy” by filling every minute of our time with something. I am not sure that is the best thing for us. Of course, it doesn’t help that the world we live in glorifies busyness. We take pride in spending long hours at work and on “hustling”, while doing nothing or idling is often mistaken for “wasting time”. Being busy has now become the new normal (or the new stupid) along with the perception that if you aren’t busy, then there is probably something wrong with you.

I was reminded of this not too long ago when a neighbor said to me (derogatorily) that I had lots of free time on my hands and that he was too busy to be talking to me about something that needed to be resolved in the gated community we were staying in. He was blowing me off, but I was amused because the whole point is to have as much discretionary time for yourself — that is true wealth. The neighbor had it backwards, or so I thought. For him (like most), busyness meant having a sense of pride for which I can’t experience the “luxury”, and he would look down upon anyone who was less busy than he was, whereas I saw a lack of busyness (and more discretionary time) as a true measure of success. I suspect he’s not alone in that thinking.

The truth is, we use busy as a euphemism for many things. We mistake busy with being important.

We use the excuse of busyness as a blanket (and default) response for when we simply don’t want to think about the demand made for our time. This could be because we might be constantly living in reactionary mode and letting things take control of us rather than us being proactive about them. In this case, our default response to others is that we are busy.

We might say we are busy as a way to say no to others’ requests for our time because we may not be interested in doing that thing, so we can’t meet them or can’t do things they ask us to do because it doesn’t overlap with our agenda in some way. Other times, we say that we are busy with a sense of pride as if it was a good thing or to brush off others.

When we hear others say they are busy, we don’t know if they are busy right now or if they don’t value us enough to spend time with us. Of course, if you find yourself reaching out to them all the time and don’t see even a third of the effort from them, then their intentions become quite clear.

I remember watching Warren Buffett and Bill Gates on Charlie Rose, where Buffett’s calendar was mostly blank for that month, whereas Gates was used to scheduling every minute of his day. He thought that was the only way to work until he looked at how Buffett spent most of his time, which was sitting, thinking, reading — the things that most CEOs should actually be doing (but aren’t), and which might be much more important. In fact, Buffett had just three entries in his calendar that week. He said that time was the most valuable resource for him, and that’s the only thing he couldn’t buy more of, so he better use it wisely. He had full control over his time even though his calendar was mostly blank. I wrote about this earlier in my draft on scheduling work.

The fact is, we live in a world where busy has become the norm and doing more and more things is socially rewarded, perceived to be important, and is also an indicator of one’s measure of success. I am reminded of the famous chocolate example from the television series, I Love Lucy, where the factory workers are responsible for wrapping up the candy from the conveyor belt and putting it back, albeit with a caveat — the speed of the belt gets faster over time and they are unable to keep up with it. This is a wonderful metaphor for how we lead our lives today. We are constantly trying to do more and more, but at what cost? We keep forgetting that efficiency doesn’t work with humans. We take on more commitments and projects than we can sustain. We bite off more than we can chew. We are unable to manage our expectations as well as of those around us. We think we can do it all, but we can’t.

There are a few reasons why we are so busy (or think we are).

With the introduction of modern technology, we think we can do more things and be more efficient in doing them, and while that may be true to an extent, there are limits to our own capacity as you saw in that video. We can only do so much. We have more things than we can possibly do, but we forget that efficiency doesn’t work with humans. It’s very easy to commit to things without thinking twice about them, but is that in our best interest?

We become busy when we don’t set appropriate boundaries in our lives. We try to help others at the cost of our own well-being, and in the process we get frustrated because we are not able to do the things we want, but we forget it was our choice to begin with. Saying yes to things doesn’t help either.

Being busy comes from doing all the time, and not nearly enough time thinking and reflecting. We prefer doing to thinking any day, even though the way to improving our effectiveness is through reflecting on what you’ve learned and getting feedback from those you trust.

Building on the previous point, we are busy because we don’t have a complete inventory of the things we have committed to. We are eternally living in reactionary mode from one thing to the next without any sense of perspective. We are so busy hugging the trees that we forget to see the forest once in a while.

We don’t manage ourselves well enough in the time we have. Combine that with the fact that we spend more hours at work (while getting fewer results) and allow our work to take over our selves and our relationships, and it’s clear that something will give out sooner or later.

Busyness comes at a cost that you can’t fully comprehend. You can tire yourself to exhaustion by being busy all the time. Trying to juggle many things will likely cause stress. It will affect your results/outcomes in your personal life and at work. Spending long hours at work will result in burnout sooner or later, which you might not even realize until you’re burned out (like the frog in the boiling water). We are putting our physical and mental health at risk due to this empty “busyness”.

When we feel busy, we are more likely to rush through things, which causes us stress and adds to the feeling of busyness. There may be times where you feel busy and/or overwhelmed with your commitments, and this is probably an indication of lack of control and/or perspective.

Our “busy” lives can often get in the way of our friendships. When you call your friends and ask them to meet up because it’s been so long since you last spoke or met, their response might be they are so busy during the week with work and they prefer to spend their weekends with their partners, so it makes it hard for them to catch up with you. Any moment they get away from the busyness (like weekends) is when they want to take a breather and rest in solitude. There are many moving parts to this, but the most obvious one is that if you let your work take you over, there won’t be any self left, let alone your relationships.

We don’t even call each other any more; we prefer texting and using Facebook (Messenger) to having a real conversation on the phone or face to face. Any spare time we have, we use with our screens. It used to be television. Now it’s one of the many screens. Watching two people chat in a coffee shop or having a quiet dinner at a restaurant without a phone has become something of an anomaly.

Ironically, we live in a world where we may be more connected digitally, but we have never been more disconnected in reality. All of this busyness by keeping ourselves occupied all of the time is causing us to lose our ability to be present with others in the here and now. We have become slaves to the technology we have created rather than being its master. For instance, my father has a habit of constantly using his phone (or smart watch in the absence of his phone), regardless of being alone or with others. Of course, I have zero tolerance for this behavior. Sure, he may choose not to change his ways (which I can do nothing about anyway, and that’s okay with me), and I can choose to spend time with him only when he has kept the phone silent and tucked away. It has to be a win-win, not a lose-win. Your time and attention is equally valuable to the other person’s, if not more so.

The antidote to busyness is slowing down. That doesn’t mean living a snail’s life, but it does mean giving things the attention they deserve (without getting distracted and/or interrupted) because you believe anything worth doing is worth doing well. Instead of racing through life, you need to live it. Faster is not always better. There are times when we need to pause, think, and reflect. Other everyday examples might include eating slow, driving slow, and doing things out of intention rather than acting on your impulses.

We have forgotten what it’s like to live in the present moment. We spend most of our time either thinking about our past (which we cannot change) or we think about the future (which hasn’t arrived yet). The more you have going on, the more you need to slow down and build pockets of stillness in your life. When you have things on your mind, either write them down and figure out what to do or stop thinking about them altogether. What you want to avoid is thinking about things and doing nothing about them, and doing here might simply be finishing the thinking without necessarily doing the task.

Focus on what matters most with your relationships and (work) results. Everything else should be treated as secondary. Always put yourself first. You can’t help others at the cost of your own well-being. Be ruthless with the time and attention you give to others. Always think twice before committing to things. When a request is made for your time, instead of committing to it right away (without getting any chance to think in that moment), you can say that you’ll think about it.

There is nothing wrong with being busy as long as you’re working on the right things. Ironically, it’s the “successful” people who seem to find the most time — not necessarily in terms of giving you their time, but giving you their undivided attention and making the most of your interaction whenever you meet with them.

The fundamental problem with being busy is you are trying to do more, much more, when you should be doing less. It comes down to doing fewer things better. Take on fewer commitments at any given time so you can do them justice — when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

In order to avoid feeling frantic all the time, do one thing at a time with no distractions. While this may sound obvious (and even simplistic), I can assure you that it’s likely a challenge for most people now. If done well, it can be a game changer for most of us.

Stop telling people you’re busy. This only reinforces that which you don’t want. Instead of telling others you’re busy, tell them you have personal/work commitments right now that you’ve chosen to give your attention to. In other words, you’re saying no (without saying no). Set clear boundaries between what poet-philosopher David Whyte calls your “three marriages” — your work, self, and relationships. This gives you a big-picture view of your various commitments.

Rather than using busy as a way to evaluate your importance, choose a different metric. Examples could include spending time with your loved ones, doing what you love and loving what you do, and doing things of interest.

If you find yourself busy all the time, consider doing a time audit for a week (168 hours) to find out where your time is going. You’ll likely be surprised how much time you have available to do the things you want to do without sacrificing other things.

Use your calendar sparingly and only for time-sensitive things that have to be done at those times. Otherwise, you might be playing calendar tetris. Plan your week in terms of results/outcomes rather than tasks/inputs.

Stop trying to save a minute here and there. I keep hearing from others about how they pride themselves on making the most of every minute by reading an article on their phone or a book they are trying to finish every chance they get when they are out and about (like when standing in queue for something). If you like to read (and it’s important enough to you), schedule some daily reading time in your calendar and give it your full attention. In other words, do things with intention, not haphazardly. Choose to just be in those moments outside.

Make regular time for reflection. Keep track of your progress. Do a “daily debrief” at the end of your work day to see what’s working well and what could be improved.

Being busy can be contagious. We often associate “busy” with “overwhelm”, and if you feel the latter, take three slow deep breaths (for each breath, inhale and hold for 5 seconds, then exhale for 5 seconds), then ask yourself what you are trying to do now.

What do you do when you feel busy or overwhelmed? Instead of doing less, you do more. We forget that “being busy” is a state of mind. In our rush to do everything and be everywhere, we have forgotten what really matters to us. We feel overwhelmed and anxious about doing things when we can’t keep up with them. At the same time, we forget the opportunity cost that comes with making choices. We forget that “not having time” (for doing things) is not a resource, but a priority issue.

We confuse success or being important with being busy. Success has less to do with being busy and more to do with doing the important things. Just because you have an empty calendar doesn’t mean you’re doing nothing or are “wasting time”.

Are your days filled with purposelessness and busyness? Living “busy lives” can be exhausting when you’re constantly living in reactionary mode. Things are controlling you as opposed to you being in control of them.

Take time to slow down and focus on what’s important to you instead of chasing the “prize” of busyness.

If you liked this piece, subscribe to the Weekly Newsflash to read my latest writing. Topics include mental health, simple living, and true success: