The illusion of being busy

"It's not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" 
– Henry David Thoreau

I was reminded recently of that common expression in business, 'if you want something done, give it to a busy person'. The thinking is, of course, that busy people are forced to be more efficient with their time, and are usually more productive, so they'll finish whatever you need in less time, and often to a better standard.

What puzzles me though, is how you find this gem of a busy person. Everyone I meet these days is amazingly busy. So, if everyone you talk to is flat-out busy, how do you find that elusive super-efficient busy person? Well, I for one don't think most people are busy. We just like to think we are.

We all claim to be busy most of the time. Let's face it, it's hardly the impressive thing to say to people, "Actually, no, I'm not busy, I've got heaps of spare time." Why not though? Isn't that a sign of success? It's at least a sign of being well organised. It has become very fashionable to be a 'busy person' of late, but consider this passage from David Nasaw's biography, Andrew Carnegie:


When A.B. Farquhar, a Pennsylavania businessman, mentioned to Carnegie that he was always sure to be in his office by "seven in the morning," Carnegie remarked laughingly:

"'You must be a lazy man if it takes you ten hours to do a day's work.'

"'What I do,' he said, 'is to get good men, and I never give them orders… Here in the morning I get reports from them. Within an hour I have disposed of everything… the day's work is done, and I am ready to go out and enjoy myself.'"


Admittedly, we might all like to be in Carnegie's shoes, handing out work to 'good men' and retiring for the rest of the day, but at what point did 'being busy' become such a badge of honour? Carnegie and two friends—still years from reaching the pinnacle of their business careers—took an entire year off, leaving their companies in the hands of others while they travelled Europe on adventures together. I can't think of a single small business owner I've met who has done that, let alone the head of a thriving large business. Yet aren't huge numbers of us enthralled by the idea of taking a year off to travel? Isn't that part of the dream that sees millions of people buying lottery tickets each week?

So what's going on? Are we really all trying to pull the wool over each others eyes, or do we genuinely believe we're that busy? I suspect there are a few factors at play. As already outlined, not being busy is really not the 'in thing'. We claim to be busy because that's what society has come to expect of us. But deep down, most of us know we can fit more in.

Then there's our old friend, procrastination. If we're always busy, it sure does make putting things off a lot easier. "Sorry, I've been meaning to reply to your email," we exclaim, "I've just be SO busy". Yeah, sure you have. In your whole week you haven't had a single 5-minute gap to say you can't make it to dinner. We're naturally good at procrastinating. Honestly, ask my wife. There's two dead branches hanging from a tree outside, and I still haven't cut them down. But hey, it's only been two months, and I just haven't had the time.

Perhaps it's a problem with our priorities. In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman talks about Steve Jobs' and his being 'relentless in filtering out what he considered irrelevancies.' The exact quote from Jobs' went, "deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do." I suspect this underlies a big part of the problem. Ultimately, we know the things we should be doing, but there's just always something that seems more appealing, like checking out the latest updates on Facebook, even though doing so usually makes you feel guilty afterward. Most of us just don't seem good at prioritising our time. It could be fear of missing out (FOMO) that's driving this inability to prioritise, but I suspect it's more to do with the constant bombardment of emails, updates, messages, and highly targeted advertising that chews up so much of our time. As Robin Sharma says, "We live in an age of dramatic distraction."

Getting clear on what's important to us seems to be a good first step in solving this 'always being busy' problem. The next might be to get better at focusing our attention—Goleman's book being an ideal starting point.

I'm not suggesting that none of us are productive, or that some aren't actually very busy. I can think of a couple of friends who would genuinely find it difficult to fit more into their days. But, I know plenty of people who aren't nearly as busy as they believe they are, and who would probably be much happier if they could resolve that. Not to mention get a lot more enjoyment out of their down time.

For those of you who are reading this thinking, "I am that busy," here's something to ponder: If I offered you a million dollars if you could get a weeks worth of work done in a single day, would you take me up on it? If the answer is yes, then, like most of us, you may be a victim of the illusion of being busy. Now, please excuse me while I go and remove a couple of dead branches from a tree.