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. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. codemaverik

    The author of this work talks about quantitiy of work but not the quality that may be all too important in some instances. Eg. A surgeon may need to spend more number of hours in a particular instance, how ever effecient he wants to be. Just because a surgeon finished early does not mean his/her treatment was succesful. Generalizations dont always work in the real world. Imagine how it would apply to a bomb disposal expert when compared to a supermarket checkout clerk.

  10. Jon Whipple

    I think it was Ben Franklin who said, “Never confuse Motion with Action”. Thanks for this, I think it’s pretty well timed for me.

  11. Samantha Laing

    Firstly – thanks for an awesome blog that makes me think a little more about how and what I do in life :)

    The “busy doesn’t mean I’m good or happy” is something I’m noticing more and more – quality over quantity.

    Time is so precious – and as you state busy people usually squander it. Your post reminded me of another where the author said unless his answer was “Hell yeah!” he should consider if it was worth his time..

  12. professional seo

    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…..

  13. website design

    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.

  14. wall mount TV

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


    ha time management is very essential. just busy word does not make people make busy, one should not be lazy and does the work by managing time.

  16. Coop

    Just came across you post. It comes at an interesting time as I turn 45 tomorrow. I have a few commitments, but the main part of my day will be spent thinking. Thinking about how I want to spend the other 45 years of my life.

  17. ???? ??????

    So, even if you can break away from the cult of busy long enough to want to inform yourself,

  18. the voyages of the door

    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.



  1. […] Looking through my bookmarks, it turns out that over the past few months I’ve hoarded quite a number of interesting articles on life, happiness and well-being.  In March, Scott Berkun wrote something that really challenges me to read, dealing as it does with being unbusy, being still and cultivating time.  It’s called The Cult of Busy. […]

  2. […] The cult of busy from Scott Berkun’s blog – “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.” […]

  3. […] QoTD: The Cult of Busy September 15th, 2010 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.-Scott Berkun […]

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