The Cult of Busy

When I was young I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise, why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and I assumed they must have meaningful things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t. The busy must matter more, and the lazy mattered less.

This is the cult of busy. That simply by always seeming to have something to do, we all assume a person is important or successful. It explains the behavior of many people at work. By appearing busy, others bother them less, and simultaneously believe they’re doing well at their job. It’s quite a trick.

I now believe the opposite to be true. Or the near opposite. Here’s why:

  • Time is the singular measure of life. It’s one of the few things you can not get more of. Knowing how to use it well is possibly the most important skill you can have.
  • The person who gets a job done in one hour will seem less busy than the one who can only do it in five.  How busy a person seems is not necessarily indicative of the quality of their results. Someone who is better at something might very well seem less busy, because they are more effective. Results matter more than the time spent to achieve them.
  • Being in demand can have good and bad causes.  Someone with a line of people waiting to talk to them outside their office door at work seems busy, and therefore seems important. But somehow the clerk running the slowest supermarket checkout line in the universe isn’t praised in the same way; it means they’re ineffective. People who are at the center of everything aren’t necessarily good at what they do (although they might be). The bar of being busy falls far well below the bar of being good.
  • The compulsion to save time may lead nowhere. If you’re always cutting corners to save time, when exactly are you using the time you’ve saved? There is this illusion some day in the future you get back all the time you’ve squirreled away in one big chunk. I don’t think time works this way. For most Americans, it seems most of our time savings goes straight into watching television. That’s where all the time savings we think we get actually goes.
  • The phrase “I don’t have time for…” should never be said. We all get the same amount of time every day. If you can’t do something it’s not about the quantity of time. It’s really about how important the task is to you. I’m sure if you were having a heart attack, you’d magically find time to go to the hospital. That time would come from something else you’d planned to do, but now seems less important. This is how time works all the time. What people really mean when they say “I don’t have time” is this thing is not important enough to earn my time. It’s a polite way to tell people that they, or their request, is not important to you.

This means people who are always busy are time poor. They have a time shortage. They have time debt. They are either trying to do too much, or they aren’t doing what they’re doing very well. They are failing to either a) be effective with their time b) don’t know what they’re trying to effect, so they scramble away at trying to optimize for everything, which leads to optimizing nothing.

On the other hand, people who truly have control over time have some in their pocket to give to someone in need. They have a sense of priorities that drive their use of time and can shift away from the specific ordinary work that’s easy to justify, in favor of the more ethereal, deeper things that are harder to justify. They protect their time from trivia and idiocy. These people are time rich. They provide themselves with a surplus of time. They might seem to idle, or to relax, more often than the rest, but that may be a sign of their mastery not their incompetence.

I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say Yes to everything.  To do so would make me too busy, and I think, less effective at what my goals are.  I always want to have some margin of my time in reserve, time I’m free to spend in any way I choose, including doing almost nothing at all. I’m free to take detours. I’m open to serendipity. Some of the best thinkers throughout history had some of their best thoughts while going for walks, playing cards with friends, little things that generally would not be considered the hallmarks of busy people. It’s the ability to pause, to reflect, and relax, to let the mind wander, that’s perhaps the true sign of time mastery, for when the mind returns it’s often sharper and more efficient, but most important perhaps, happier than it was before.

This post was inspired by Marrissa Bracke‘s essay Why I stopped working with busy people.

Also see:

135 Responses to “The Cult of Busy”

  1. Subin Sebastian

    What matters is not how busy you are but why you are busy the bee is praised, mosquitoes swattered

    1. Ronald Green

      After many years of working at nothing, I can confirm that while it is possible to be busy, it is impossible to do nothing.

      Ronald Green
      “Nothing matters – a book about nothing” (iff-Books)

  2. marina's dream

    Great article! The busy culture is definitely pervasive; if only “busy” people weren’t given the adulation that they often receive.

    It is similar to people constantly checking their phone for new emails or texts. Even during dinner. I’m sure it can wait, but being busy is very a la mode.

  3. fewo fischen

    Being busy makes people feel more important! Nobody would admit that he is idle because it is socially not well accepted. Even if somebody is more efficient than others and finished his work earlier he´d pretend to be busy with something.

  4. taking pictures for the web

    I like the article today all are thinking that they are busy but that is not true all times because if time is managed properly then there is no question of ‘i dont have time’.
    thanks for the article

  5. taking pictures for the web

    Thanks for the article it shows how busy people are actually. If the time is managed properly then there is no question of “i dont have time”.

  6. David

    I think it is inaccurate to say “The phrase ‘I don’t have time for’ should never be said.” If a person is well organized, there are allocated amounts of time for different parts of one’s life. For example, unless you work literally 24/7, there will only be so many hours in a day, and in a week, that are allocated for work. If you already have all of those hours filled with projects, it would be in your best interest to say ‘no’ when asked to take on additional projects. This coincides with your practice of choosing not to say ‘yes’ to everything. So saying “I don’t have time for” or maybe, more appropriately, “I don’t have time right now for” is actually a part of good time management.

  7. Jackie

    Time is definitely more valuable than money and it’s the most precious commodity because as you said; it’s limited. The best part about being wealthy is the ability to spend your time however you like without being tied to a job. Also, it’s not a matter of how long your work but how much you accomplish. If you sit behind the desk 10 hrs and just read forums and mess around it doesn’t count for anything.

  8. Jackie

    Unfortunately our society seems to give more respect to those who simply appear busy even if they aren’t productive. It’s more socially acceptable to look busy and in some cases people who “appear busy” are only doing so because they think it’s expected of them. It takes a much more strong willed person to be indulgent with their time, without fear of appearing lazy or as a bum.

  9. Panax

    I like the article today all are thinking that they are busy but that is not true all times because if time is managed properly then there is no question of ‘i dont have time’.
    thanks for the article

  10. panax

    This coincides with your practice of choosing not to say ‘yes’ to everything.

  11. Milto

    Consider for a moment the competent person in a work situation. Who gets given stuff to do when it’s really needed? Mr Competent that’s who. So that makes him BUSY. There are plenty of slackers who say ‘I don’t have time for that’ while they are browsing the internet. I do admit there are also plenty of fools claiming to be ‘busy’ constantly while not achieving anything.

  12. Scott

    Time coward: someone who has great ideas but is not willing to put in the time to execute on them. (#)

  13. Kenneth Vogt

    It has always given me pause that Bill Gates and Richard Branson and {whatever rich guy you like} gets the same 24 hours today that I do. Sure, you can make the case that they have other resources, plenty of them that may impact time but when it comes to the ticking of the clock they’ve got nothing on me. We use time as an excuse but not one of us can use it validly. Consider this:

  14. Dan

    One of my managers was fond of saying “if you’re not typing or talking, you’re not working”

    On another gig, I would often encounter my manager halfway around the long block as I was walking the other way. He would ask “what are *you* working on?”. I would ask the same. We would discuss what each was working on and then continue on our opposite ways; busy and productive as we walked.

    Busy has many faces. Talking and typing are just two of them and even those are not good indicators of productivity.

    I prefer to think in terms of engaged and focused. Busy is a performance for other people.

  15. Jay Oza

    We are living in a culture where it is uncool not be busy or pretend to be busy or just say you are busy. Lot of it is tied to the saying “time is money,” and if you are not busy then you are losing money or not making money. We have adopted the industrial mindset and it is hard to change it no matter how hard we try.

    Now we have plethora of devices to keep us busy. We are going to be so busy that we will not need to talk to people at all and get away with it.

    Reminds me of that song “Cats and the cradle.”

  16. Michael LaRocca

    I was going to write a long, thoughtful response to this, but I couldn’t find the time. No, seriously, it’s well-written and I agree with all of it, so there’s nothing to add.



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