The pursuit of busyness
Do we keep ourselves busy for the sake of keeping ourselves busy, just to appear more productive and not face the hard questions that need answering?
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What if I told you that you can earn and spend $44640 dollars a month? You’d probably think of a million ways to spend that money right? Buy a few houses (well, one in the Bay Area), rent them out, invest the money and set yourself for a pleasant future a couple of decades out.
What if I now changed the rules and said you could earn the same amount of money but have to spend it all in the same month. You can’t invest it, you can't buy a house, you have to consume it. On the last day of each month, your balance will reset to zero and then go back to $46440.
Now how would you spend it? How much of it would you waste? I figure if you are anything like me you’d find it hard-pressed to spend all that money, especially if you do not believe in a frivolous lifestyle. You’d be too busy trying to spend the money rather than trying to enjoy it. Packing your day with unnecessary money-spending activities such as traveling all the time, overeating, but never stopping to enjoy the food or the places that you visit.
Now, what if I told you, instead of dollars, that the number 44640 corresponds to the number of minutes you have in a month. The rules remain the same. You must spend all these minutes. You are likely going to end up with a lot of busywork trying to utilize that time so none of it gets wasted.
I think this equates to how some professional jobs are these days. David Graeber has written a book called Bullshit Jobs that touches on this. In his book, he argues that millions of people across the world - clerks, workers, admin staff, consultants, telemarketers, lawyers, and service folks continue to toil away in meaningless and unnecessary jobs; to a certain extent driven by a reduction in labor-intensive jobs and increase in specialization of labor.
This results in us as human beings trying to “act busy” and “look busy”, shuffling papers around, sending unnecessary communications all in the service of, “I must look busy and justify my job”. This does not define every worker. Most act busy, some are busy with mindless work, and yet few others are truly busy.
In his work Cours d'économie politique, Vilfredo Pareto noted the 80/20 connection by showing that approximately 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. This is the Pareto Principle. 80% of the work in any company gets done by 20% of the people.
I have seen this manifest in multiple different ways either via experience or from conversations with friends. In one example, the company had so many people that it took hours before you could identify the directly responsible individual for the task at hand. In another example, the company had so many meetings, and so much discussion, with not a single thing being done. More talk, no work. I’m in India and trying to open a new bank account with a very popular Indian Bank, ICICI. Just adding a nominee requires a .. paper form .. and took 5 hours to accomplish. Process for the sake of process. This results in huge bloat, and customer frustration and I can tell you the employees didn’t look that excited either. But hey, there are bills to be paid so can you really blame employees?
This brings me to the core point…
Is it that we’re truly busy or just perceiving ourselves to be busy and telling people how busy we are? I am guilty of doing the same thing. Whenever someone asks me “How’s life” my default response is “busy man, busy”. “So much work, man!, but hopefully it will be better next week”. Being busy all the time can definitely give you the illusion of productivity but are you really that productive? This illusion of productivity can be very reassuring but it comes at the cost of enjoying life. Similar to the experience of being forced to spend $44640 without actually asking, “Am I really enjoying spending this, or am I spending this because I’d like to have no money left at the end of the month” In other words the lack of busyness makes us think that we’re “wasting” time.
Of course, for some people having two jobs and actually being busy is not an option. Or a student working part-time to pay tuition. But as a professional answer this for yourself:
How busy are you truly?
I’m the kind of person that has every task either on a task list or a calendar and I flit from task to task, however small, and the act of marking the task as complete does make me feel like I have accomplished something even though I know I accomplished exactly nothing! :)
For me this is to avoid idleness because idleness means that I’ve lost my edge and I’m not being productive. Stopping being busy would also mean that I’d have to consider what I want out of life and if that battle is worth fighting. An idle mind, they say, is a devil’s workshop. An idle mind makes us question why we’re not as rich, successful, or ahead of the person that we consider our “competition”. We are mimetic and want what the other person has without questioning why we want what that other person has.
I recently saw this story about a 100-year-old man named Walter Orthmann. He worked at the same company for 84 years starting as a shipping assistant and grew into a Sales Manager and stayed in that position ever since. Why not grow his career? He told the Guinness World Records: “I don’t do much planning, nor care much about tomorrow. All I care about is that tomorrow will be another day in which I will wake up, get up, exercise, and go to work; you need to get busy with the present, not the past or the future. Here and now is what counts”
Sometimes the gap between what we want and where we are is so wide that it's just best to not think about it. Busyness is just a defense mechanism so we don’t have to ever face reality. The blue pill in Matrix as opposed to the red pill. Consider this: Let's say that software engineer A writes 36,500 lines of code in a year. Software engineer B writes 3,650 lines of code. At its face value, it seems like software engineer A has definitely done more “work”. What if I tell you that Software Engineer A’s code does not do anything useful and Software engineer’s code actually accomplishes something.
This is the issue with how we’re measured: How many “tasks” did you complete? How many “meetings” were you a part of? Did you participate? We must instead be intellectually honest with ourselves and ask “Did I accomplish any quality work this year, month, or day”. “Did I push forward my personal goals this year, month, day?”
The wrong measure will always result in us thinking that we are progressing. One of the ways to avoid this cycle is to ask the following questions:
Did the work I did feel intellectually stimulating?
Did I learn anything new this quarter that I can use for my next quarter/year/life??
Did I build or deepen relationships in a meaningful way? Whether personal or work-related?
Did I connect with interesting people this year?
Did I take time for myself to pursue my own hobbies?
Did I take time to visit with my friends and have a few laughs and beers and a nice meal?
They say that death and taxes are certain. Time and tide wait for no man or woman. Ultimately, if you’re too “busy” to enjoy life, to spend time with friends, to go for that hike or run, to learn how to cook, the moment will pass and you’ll be retiring with no one but yourself and an empty calendar and task list. You may think it's too late, but it never is. You’ve probably heard of stories of elderly people graduating in their 70s and 80s such as this one so .. it's never too late! You may be as old as the sea, but you are also as young as the morning. The next time you think of learning something or doing something and the first thought that pops into your mind is “Where do I fit this in my busy schedule” stop for a second and think about the $44640 dollars. Would you rather have that much money and the pressure to spend it all or would you rather have less and be able to spend it well and enjoy it?
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