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 parents and busy bosses, and I assumed they must always have important 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 an illusion that 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:

137 Responses to “The Cult of Busy”

  1. Scott Barstow

    I think there are some corollaries with other books like the Four Hour Work Week, where the emphasis is not work for work’s sake which I think is what most “busy” people do.

    The ability to say no to worthless meetings, not answer your phone just because it rings, or otherwise get distracted from the work that matters is very tough to learn. However, going down this path right now I can say that it is invaluable. I don’t get it right every day, but every meeting I say no to where there is no agenda or no decision being made gets me that much closer to having my mind freed up to just think.

    If you are senior in an organization, you should be paid to think, not attend the most meetings or conference calls. If people want to define themselves this way, they make themselves so easily replaceable. Anyone can run a meeting poorly. Very few can walk into a situation, assess the problem, and think through to the right solution.

  2. Sarah Mitchell

    Continuing in the vein of Scott Barstow’s comment, I think figuring out HOW to not be busy is the real struggle. Aside from the few people I’ve met who are addicted to chaos, most sane adults readily agree that being less busy would be better. But busy is like entropy – you have to have a clear plan for how to fight back the busy and stick to it every day. Of course the simple option is just to do less. But even that is not so easy, and in many cases (especially for working parents) saying No just isn’t possible. That’s why GTD is a huge success and new productivity sites, toolkits, and blogs are springing up every week.

    So I agree with you, Scott, and have the same goals. But knowing is only half the battle.

  3. Scott Berkun


    You’re right. Knowing is half the battle, maybe less :)

    So much of this is personal which is why I think many of the productivity tips/books/magic spells don’t work very well. It’s a sprinkling of someone else’s habits onto your own and it’s not likely to work very well.

    I think friendships and loved ones and community are the easiest place to work from. Spending more time on your friends and family is usually rewarded, it’s easy and familiar. And if you can find friends and family that also wish to change their disposition to time, they can be partners in being ‘idle’ together. It can be a weekly ‘meeting’ you have with a coworker that you always get coffee at 3pm every day, or every other day. Or something.

    This is personal preference, but I find the less phones, gadgets and web things there are within a 10 foot radius of me, the more likely it is I’m making good use of my time.

  4. Scott Berkun

    Put another way, the big secret for many is turning things off.

    Everything has an off switch. We just forget to use them. No one can bug you with email if you don’t check it. No one can annoy you on the phone if you don’t answer it.

    A stroll in the park, with a friend, on a nice day, at 3pm on a workday might just be the most liberating thing in the world these days.

  5. Scott Barstow

    Agree that it is 100% personal. I have the luxury of working from home, which eliminates a lot of the walkup traffic talked about here.

    The other thing I would add to this discussion is that to the extent that you have people working for you, you must give them both the responsibility and the freedom of making their own decisions. If they make bad ones, you tell them how to do it differently the next time. If they consistently get it wrong, you have the wrong person. Find someone else.

  6. Jason Murphy

    Appearing busy is a chronic cover up for procrastination, imho.

    Good post. Dugg and RT’d.


  7. Greg

    Re: your final bullet point, I heard a great line once: “You have exactly enough time for the important things.”

  8. DJ

    Good stuff! Especially like this “Knowing how to spend it well is possibly the most important skill you can have.”

  9. Justin Warren

    +1 on turning things off.

    Also: focus and priorities. I can’t check email (or twitter, or Facebook, or..) every 5 seconds if I’m focused on getting something important done.

    And then its finished, and I have a rest. I don’t lurch straight into the next round of interruption driven chaos.

    Besides, it’s a nice day and the clouds are pretty.

  10. Alex

    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.

  11. ed tremblay

    great advice, similar in tone to the stuff Tim Ferris says in the 4 hour work week book. That book helps with strategies on becoming more effective with your finite amount of time vs. very busy and ineffective.

  12. darya

    I think this cult of busy is simply rooted in fear. Fear of not being accepted, fear of becoming fired, fear of looking weak and so on. And definitely fear is not a good ingredient for anything.

  13. paul

    the above drivel is full of generalizations and hypotheses the author can only hope are true. nothing new or interesting presented.

  14. Harris Moin

    I think the next post in this series is how to avoid overloading your team and streamline their work.
    At times one gets involved in multiple projects and get requests from all different directions, and everyone believes their work is most important and must be catered for right then and there. How best to handle these situations.
    My first ever day of work, my CEO gave me an advice which I have tried to follow always “If you are staying late at work once, that’s understandable but if you are doing it day in day out, then their is an issue with your time management skills and contrary to general perception it will not do any good to your career”

  15. Dave

    Very good article. I’m a busy man myself who spends extra time in perfecting a piece of work. Certainly it shouldn’t always be like that.

  16. Ross Johnston

    Thanks Scott! This made for thought provoking and motivating reading.

  17. doc_usui

    you wrote

    “people who truly have control over time have some in their pocket to give to someone in need”

    I think this is same meaning what is represent “busy” by Japanese Kanzi?

  18. Lex

    Scott, thought provoking article. Large companies are downsizing their staff and asking more of them. People are doing the jobs of two or three of their former co-workers. They are invited to many meetings but don’t feel declining them is a choice. Are these people “time poor” or just crazy busy?

  19. paul lewendon

    I agree. Busy does not equal effective.

    Were I work there is a tendency to praise workers who always appear to be running around. They don’t have the time to focus on what they are doing now, because the next task is more important. This leads to mistakes that are very costly to the busines, and more work = less time.

    I know that if I see my staff running around on the production floor they arn’t in controll, instead they are firefighting.

    Busy people might look like their working hard. But more offten they are making the work look hard.

    It’s very hard training staff so that they realise this. Any tips?

  20. Mike Mainguy

    The biggest problem from my perspective is that time is very easy to measure, whereas effectiveness is difficult. If a mechanic(dentist/lawyer) spends 2 hours working for you and the problem is solved… would you pay the same thing if he only worked 15 minutes? What exactly do they bill you for?

    I think many disciplines started down an interesting path by charging for the “procedure” but quickly found that this simply watered things down to the point where nobody knew exactly what the heck they where paying for.

  21. Mike Nitabach

    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 drives their use of time and can shift away from the specific ordinary work that

  22. Kevin Webber

    “I choose not to say Yes to everything.”

    I think that’s the biggest difference between people who are time-starved and people who find a happy balance in their lives. Sycophants are *always* busy, after all. ;)

  23. FPS

    I hate to go the other way with my comments because i really enjoyed reading this article. Still, i think most of this is not entirely applicable in various situations. I think phrases like this one “Some of the best thinkers throughout history had some of their best thoughts while going for walks, playing cards with friends…” are somewhat taken off the “general sayings” and are way out of accuracy and can be truly misguiding. Whoever has worked passionately or has had some challenging task knows that the “work” doesn’t end after the 8 hours. It just goes on in your head, weather you like it or not. Generally, you like it (either the task or the fact that is challenging). So, ideas don’t just pop out while playing cards with friends because you’re so great. They’ve been in there all of the time. You’ve been working on them in your spare time all along. The trouble is that not all tasks involve just thinking, most of them involve doing, and this passion or challenge might as well be mistaken for after-hours workaholics, busy people, etc. What some people fail to understand is that work should not be some horrible and useless way to give out 8 of your “awaken” hours to some company just for the money. That’s the whole problem with this. But, i also understand that not everyone is willing to risk thinking or doing too much, i have known an enormous amount of people who just like to do their hours and then go home or hang out on a bar. I have never seen this people actually have some great idea or nothing above the standard thinking. And it’s also OK. What I’m saying is that in my opinion, this article is best suited for those who don’t have a passion for what they do and need to pretend they’re actually important at their jobs.

  24. shivlu jain

    I am totally agree with “The person who gets a job done in one hour will seem less busy than the guy who can only do it in five”. Today I am feeling proud that I am more productive :).

  25. RK

    This follows the same culture where the society reveres fire-fighters, but doesn’t care about fire-inspectors. Busy people are revered, but people who manage their time well are ignored. In the context of business, if you have a happy customer because you are providing excellent customer service, you are “doing your job” whereas if you are providing poor service and constantly demanding the help of people in your organization to recover from imminent loss of business/reputation, you get the visibility the others dont get. And somehow that also makes you a popular person.

  26. Ellen Besso

    Scott: A great article. I’m always on about over-scheduling & over-functioning.

    May I reprint it in it’s entirety on my blog?

  27. Anirudh Ojha

    Nice read. However, this appears to be a case of overgeneralization. This is why:

    > “Spending time well” is very subjective and personal and varies with time, individual etc.

    > If two individuals with varying capacity complete same task in different time, it proves that one is more efficient than other. True. (What is not taken into account is quantity of work.) The more efficient guy can now use that saved time to accompish more tasks; and still look equally busy (that is ofcourse if he is not taking strolls in the garden).

    > Assumptions such as busy people fail to either a) be effective with their time b) don

  28. Allison T

    Sometimes I think it’s about giving yourself permission to do nothing. Even as kids we’re told to ‘get outside and do something’. Doing ‘something’ becomes what we do.

    But part of it is also down to your opening lines: we think that to be busy is to be important. When people ask us ‘How are you?’, we used to say ‘Fine’. Now we say ‘Busy’, and everybody nods and smiles. If you say ‘busy’, you don’t need to elaborate. If you say ‘fine’, you don’t need to elaborate. Social shorthand for ‘I won’t tell you anything awkward’ I promise.

    I hate being too busy. My weekend has few plans and that’s just fine by me.

  29. evelyn

    Too bad that many entrepreneurs don’t get this. They’re too busy being the founder/CEO, micromanaging the engineers, ignoring morale issues, forgetting to do payroll…

  30. Andrea Miller

    Love this aricle. This sums up everything that my career and life are not right now – this is a great inspirational article. Definitely something to re-evaluate in my life.

  31. Tom Lucas

    I agree with some of this, but it contradicts a rule of thumb I’ve found to be pretty much true: “If you want to get something done, ask a busy person.”

  32. Michael Schutterop

    Terrific post. While “Busyness” does not equal important, valuable or productive, it seems to be all consuming and almost alive. An enemy requiring a war strategy and daily tactical battle plans.

    I would love to share with your readers which speaks to busyness getting in the way of our primary objectives, and the more whimsical

  33. Faeeza

    Brillian article! Perfectly encapsulates how I’ve been feeling about managing my time lately. I have been saying no to some engagements, and generally being more assertive about my time so that I have enough time to be still and reflective. After years of road-tripping to my hometown, my husband and I finally stopped to admire a field of sunflowers. This act was so soothing and enjoyable to us, and made us appreciate the simple things in life instead of rushing to get to places all the time.

  34. Rebecca

    Funny. I’m working on a post called “The Beauty of Doing Nothing” as a summary of how I spent my sabbatical. It’s not that I actually did *nothing,* it’s that I didn’t pack my sabbatical with the list that I’d created. I just practiced being “in the moment” (I never thought I’d say that) and choosing very specifically the things I wanted to do – and not do. It was great; I highly recommend spending some time like that if people can afford it, in all senses of that word.

    It’s also interesting to note that some companies get wrapped up in the Cult of Busy. If you are stuck in an organization like that, unless you truly have the power to change it, and you don’t want to spend your time in that way, GET OUT.

  35. Elisabeth Bucci

    Great post. And it never ceases to amaze me how I “always” have time to watch TV (I confess, I love it) and to read blogs (love those too) but don’t have time to do my taxes (because, here I am, reading and commenting on blogs.) Which is why I laughed out loud when I read “The ‘phrase I don’t have time for’ should never be said”.
    Once again, you hit the nail right on the head.

  36. Ian Watson

    Great bit of writing Scott. You inspired to “Make Time Poverty History” Perhaps you should join the campaign (or just visit our site for a read, and leave a comment)

    Thanks again for your article!



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