Busy means you’re not focused

Busy is a very interesting thing to be.

Being overwhelmed by how busy you are doesn’t mean you’re actually creating or doing the work. Busy simply means you’re unfocused on what you should be doing, so you feel busy.

To the creative worker, busy is a familiar feeling. There’s never not enough to do or explore.

But to be busy means you simply aren’t focusing your efforts on the work that needs the most attention. If you were focused then you wouldn’t feel as busy, you’d feel another word: productive.

Yet we live in a day-and-age where being busy is praised, almost worshipped. The hard-working individual who is in the office or studio before sunrise and leaves only well-after the sun has set is looked at as someone to idolize.

We feel the burden to do more, make more, work more and as a result we confuse the hours spent sitting in front of a canvas, or keyboard, with actually doing quality work.

Author Scott Berkun recently summed up this confusion nicely on his blog:

“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.”

Being busy (or, at least, appearing to be) is becoming a huge phenomenon, particularly in the United States where innovation is flailing and creativity is becoming a cultural flagpole.

Recently in Slate, Hanna Rosin uncovered research into how busy we all claim we are, even when we’re not:

“The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age.”

In her article, Hanna goes on to explore the writing and research of Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte, who says that playing the “busy” card has become the norm for many of us. She quotes Tim Kreider, author of a great NYTimes piece titled: “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” who writes: “Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time.”

How do we escape this illusion and get back to producing better quality and more meaningful work?

There are a number of ways, thankfully. One which I have recently found to be the most beneficial is simply focusing our attention. Look at all you have to do, all that you want to do, and pick the most important things to work on now and into the near future.

Little things will certainly pile-up around you, but if you’re not willing to focus your attention you’re wasting your time and capabilities anyway.

Scott Berkun gives us advice on escaping the busy-ness culture on his blog as well:

“I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say Yes to everything. For 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.”

Back to Hanna Rosin’s Slate article, she found that silently reminding yourself that you’re really just not that busy worked for her:

“The way I did this was by silently repeating, 'You’re not that busy.’ Doing this did actually stop the tape in my head of what had to get done that day. I just calmly did one thing after another.”

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmingly busy lately, take a step back and remind yourself that the feeling is a signal to focus your attention and make time for what matters most.

To really get back to the grove of things, remind yourself that you’re not actually as busy as you think you are.


Scott Berkun on The Cult of Busy

You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are

The 'Busy’ Trap

Photo via Flickr.