Productivity, Work
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Can We Ban “Busy”?


(Photo: Mo Riza/Flickr)

Over a leisurely lunch of pasta and prosciutto, I was talking to a dear friend about how much I had enjoyed reading over the summer. My friend, a successful entrepreneur, paused and looked at me thoughtfully. Then he shook his head, looked down and said he would love to read but, unfortunately, just didn’t have time. Specifically he said he was “too busy.”

I smiled.

Our lunch lasted an hour and a half. Afterwards we strolled to browse menus at nearby restaurants, evaluating spots for a family dinner he was planning later in the week. He then met a friend of mine about joining a social club neither of us thought he would actually join. By the time he returned to work it would be 4:30pm, nearly four hours after he had left to meet me for lunch.

My friend was making decisions about how to spend his day. They were active choices. The decision was, simply, not to read.

We all have the same 24 hours in our day. Most of us are choosing how to spend it.

[pullquote]If you ask the most important people in the world how they are, they’ll almost never say “busy.”  [/pullquote]

If you have young children, a brutal commute or juggle several jobs to make ends meet, you are exempt from everything I write in this piece. You are truly busy.

But many of the urban professionals I see throughout the day are not “too busy” to do anything they want if that task, like reading, requires a few minutes, or even 15 minutes, a day.

I often chat with people about meditation. Most people say they “don’t have time.” And so, I inquire.

“Do you work out?”

“Yes,” they often say.

Maybe they take 90-minute yoga classes twice a week. With travel time and showering, that’s four hours a week. It’s worthwhile, of course, but a choice. If you want to conserve time you could take an online class for half an hour or even an hour with similar benefits, saving travel and class time.

Could the yoga and fitness folks shave off three minutes of improving their bodies to meditate, thereby improving their minds?

It’s a choice not to.

It’s important to realize that our lives, and our time, are under our control. You may feel very “busy” at work. When I helped to run my start-up, I certainly did.

But I took meetings I didn’t need to take: 90 wasted minutes each time. I answered emails I didn’t need to answer: hours wasted each day.

I created “busy” to avoid the thoughtful, strategic work that required more of me. There’s a word for this: busywork. I was busy with busywork. What an ironic thing to boast about!

Feeling busy is not something to brag about. Ask the most important people in the world how they are, and they’ll almost never say, “busy.” It’s not a complaint you’re likely to hear from President Obama or Rupert Murdoch. They are, by most people’s definition, pretty busy. They’re consistently making high-level strategic decisions, about a variety of topics, with a large impact.

What are they doing differently?

Two things. One, they aim to project an image that things are under control – they’ve hired excellent staff, implemented thoughtful processes, and spend time only on topics that require their attention. Two, they are actually trying to do this. Is that not something to strive for?

To me, “busy” sounds weak. If you’re reading this article, you’ve lived enough days to have a sense of what you can expect to accomplish in 24 hours. Why not establish reasonable goals for your actions each day and then head directly towards them? With this approach, you should feel great all day. Not rushed but strategic and methodical.

“Busy” is an indication you’re not planning your days well, don’t have a truthful understanding of your work speed, or that your affairs are bigger than you are. Maybe you’re not good at delegating, not confident enough to say no, or simply in over your head. This may be true, and it’s happened to all of us, but should be an admission, not a goal. When people say they’re busy I picture a small car going up a big hill, making lots of noise. The image does not instill confidence.

[pullquote] In Buddhism, busyness is equated with laziness.[/pullquote]

I don’t understand why it’s cool to say you’re busy. Cool should be managing your affairs so well you have extra capacity. Cool is having time to hold the door open for the person behind you, with a smile, or to help someone with a suitcase struggling up stairs.

In Buddhism, busyness is equated with laziness. It’s a sign you’re keeping yourself preoccupied with things no longer essential. Sogyal Rinpoche writes about “active laziness” – filling our lives with unimportant tasks so we feel full of responsibilities or, as he calls them, irresponsibilites..

There are two problems with this. One, we’ve lost touch with the magic of enjoying quiet, peaceful moments during the day. Second, much of our busyness is the result of taking on projects we don’t need to be part of and maintaining habits that no longer serve us.

My hope is that we start thinking mindfully about how we spend our time. Why do we feel so busy? Are the things that make us feel “busy” really necessary?

I suspect if you look at every action you take and consider each one an active choice you could eliminate a huge number of them or do them in half the time. At my start-up I took on partnerships and industry boards that weren’t essential to the company. I spent more time doing than evaluating what or why I was doing. On a personal level, do you need to answer every email or check Facebook or Instagram more than a few times a week? If you say running is your meditation, have you thought about sitting quietly for five minutes rather than running each day for thirty?

If we act mindfully each day, and reconsider each of our daily habits, we could become far less “busy.” Starting today we can stop boasting of busy-ness and begin to thoughtfully put our time and energy exactly where we want it to be.

If you do this, I’m going to wager a bet. If you’ve always wanted to read, I believe you’ll find five minutes to read each day. Next week you may find 10. And I suspect you’ll start smiling more, realizing that your life is far more under control than you realized.

So, when someone asks how you are, you might answer, “good,” and then pause and perhaps even smile, because you have that one second to spare, and also because you mean it.


  1. SarfEastCaff says

    Margit TueNight Because they pass all their work down the chain and strut about being ‘important’. My boss does it really well.

  2. Margit says

    SarfEastCaff oo ouch. good point. I think the idea is we all need to stop complaining about how “busy” we are — when busy is a choice.

  3. SarfEastCaff says

    Margit I’m really not trying to pick a fight here – but ‘busy’ isn’t a choice at work. It’s a reality. I agree with you about free time.

  4. Margit says

    SarfEastCaff right – I agree. I think it’s the use of the word, and that we have more control than we realize.

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  6. Dina Kaplan
    Dina Kaplan says

    Hey I actually, humbly, think managers should delegate work. Strategy – which I didn’t leave myself time for when I was helping to run my start-up – is super important, and requires a bit of white space in the day. I truly believe, too, that people create busy in their jobs rather than thinking strategically, each moment, about what needs to be done and what can be left undone.

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  11. yep totally agree. i know i’m exempt as i have young kids (one on my lap now) – thanks 🙂 but i still work at home, workout a few times a week and i just read your article. You make time for the things you want to. If you were truly busy you’d know you can fit in a couple more things to your day.
    ban busy i agree!

  12. This is such a great piece. It’s amazing how many conscious decisions we make throughout the day while pretending we don’t have a choice. Our lives prioritized by habit instead of what we want.

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