It's Okay to Be Busy

Mike Vardy

“Being busy does not always mean real work. The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence, and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing.” – Thomas Edison

The word “busy” has become as taboo as another four-letter word that I’ll refrain from using here. And like that coarse four-letter word, it can lose its power and impact when used too frequently.

But being busy is real. It doesn’t always present itself as being occupied with a lot to do, either.

I would say that you can be busy doing deep work like my friend Cal Newport spends much of his time doing. He is busy doing deep work most of the time. He actually argues against being busy in this piece, but I argue that you can be busy doing deep and focused work. At the tail end of the post, Cal says:

“Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day.”

The term “busy” can be applied to all of what he mentions. You can be busy doing less. You can be busy enjoying the rest of your day. It’s all just in how you frame the word “busy.”

What is Busy?

Busy is defined by Merriam-Webster as being “engaged in action.” Sure, there are other definitions listed, but this is the first one you’ll find. Note that it doesn’t suggest that you’re scattered or overwhelmed – which I believe is what can happen if you have too much to do – but it suggests that if you’re busy you must be engaged in action.

So let’s look at the definition of engaged and action.

Engaged is defined as being “involved” or “committed” to something or someone. As a matter of fact, it can also be defined as being pledged to be married. If you think about being engaged in those terms, then being engaged requires focus. Deep work requires focus, doesn’t it?

There are plenty of definitions of the word “action.” However, for this argument I’m going to run with this one: an act of will.

So if you think about “busy” as being involved or committed to an act of will, then it doesn’t sound nearly as detrimental, does it? It suggests that you’re focused on something that you are doing by desire or by choice.

That sounds pretty productive to me.

What I’m Saying Instead Of “I’m Busy.”

Saying “I’m busy” can become a reflex. I’ve said it more times than I’d like to admit. I still do from time to time. What about you? Is it your default response when people ask how you’re doing? What if someone asks for your help? Do you answer them the same way?

I want to make the word busy matter more. It deserves that because the word has become corrupted over the years. As Edison said, “Being busy does not always mean real work,” but sometimes it does. In those cases, it should have the power and impact needed to illustrate that. Ultimately you want to be able to approach this quotation with something that matters:

”It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?” – Henry David Thoreau

You need to ask yourself that question every time one of these phrases enters your mind:

1. How are you doing?
2. What are you doing?
3. Can you do this?
4. What’s going on?
5. How have you been?
6. When can we get together?

I’m sure there are other questions that others will ask you – or that you can ask yourself – that would result in the answer “I’m busy.”

You need to fend off answering that way. You devalue what you’re doing when you don’t consider what you are, as Thoreau suggests, “busy about.”

What Are You Busy About?

”One of the nice things about being busy is it makes you focus on what’s important to you and how you use your time.” – Lorne Michaels

Lorne Michaels has been running Saturday Night Live for the better part of its 40-plus year history. Most of his life he has spent his time working with a talented cast and crew to create a 90-minute show in a few short days. That’s a tall order to do once, let alone approximately 760 times (as of the end of the 2017 season).

But Michaels’s filmography goes beyond SNL. He’s produced movies, other television programs (like Kids in the Hall), and more. There’s no arguing he is a busy person. The thing is, he’s busy about the right things for him.

Some of the things he is engaged in aren’t necessarily things he desires to do, but he’s committed to them because they are part of the grand scheme of things. Producing content at the pace and rate he does requires many acts of will. Some of those acts are part of the package whether he wants to do them or not. It seems as if Lorne Michaels has got “busy” right. In fact, being busy with the right things has led to his success.

”Success usually comes to those who are too busy to be looking for it.” – Henry David Thoreau

If you were to email me right now what I am busy about, I would share with you my /now page. Even then you’d only get a glimpse of what I’m busy about. TimeCrafting helps me focus on what’s important to me and how I use my time. TimeCrafting has helped me foster awareness and gain clarity on the important things in my life. TimeCrafting helps me define what I’m busy about.

That being said, clearly being busy can be a negative. Let’s look closer at that kind of busy.

The Wrong Kind of Busy

Crazy-busy’ is a great armor, it’s a great way for numbing. What a lot of us do is that we stay so busy, and so out in front of our life, that the truth of how we’re feeling and what we really need can’t catch up with us. – Brene Brown

Busywork is the problem. I think that’s what Brené Brown is referring to when she says “crazy-busy.” It’s not knowing what you’re busy about but being busy for the sake of optics.

It’s taking action without being engaged in it – and doing so repeatedly.

It’s spending time getting your email inbox to zero without being engaged with everything that lands there first. It’s surfing the web without a clear objective in mind before opening the browser. It’s decluttering your space – physical and/or digital – without putting a plan in place first.

The right kind of busy depends on intention before attention. The wrong kind of busy attracts attention before intention.

I can’t define what the right kind of busy is for you. You need to work on that yourself. But I’ve got some ways to help you put intention before attention so you can avoid The ‘Busy’ Trap.

 3 Ways to Make Moments Matter

”I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle.” – The ‘Busy’ Trap by Tim Kreider (The New York Times, June 2012)

After re-reading this piece, other words came to mind that I can use instead of “I’m busy.” Words like frenetic, crazy, hectic, and so on. So I’m going to try to avoid simply stating “I’m busy” from now on. Instead, I’ll do one of two things:

1. Qualify what I’m busy about. My /now Page offers up detail as what I’m doing now. I can carry that ideal over to conversations. So if you were to ask me any of those questions I mentioned earlier instead of saying “I’m busy,” and leaving it at that, I will add more depth to the statement. Further to that, I’ll be as succinct as possible when doing so. I won’t rhyme off a list of things I”m busy about but will list one thing that encapsulates several items or – better still – mention one act of will I’m engaged in at the moment.

2. If I’m feeling frenetic, then I’ll use that word instead of busy. I’ve thrown around the term “hecticity” to describe when my life is overly full and frantic. It compels those who care to ask what the word means, and then I can qualify it from there. The big thing is that I’m going to stop saying “I’m busy” on its own as it serves absolutely no one.

I know It will be tough to adopt this habit, but once I apply it consistently, it should stick. There are things I can do to help reinforce my stance on being busy, and you can do them too.

Mindful Meditation

I know that meditation is important, but it’s something I’ve struggled to keep up with regularly. I’ve had it in my head that the more you meditate per session, the better it is for you. That’s not wrong, but I don’t always carve out time for lengthy sessions into my schedule.

There’s no way that I can do an hour of meditation. I’m nowhere near proficient enough to do it and simply don’t want to make that amount of time available for it. I’m not even doing 30 minutes.

Right now I’m doing five minutes.

Five minutes of meditation is where I’m starting my practice again. I may add more as I want to, but the baseline is five minutes. Any amount of meditation is beneficial, so start when you can and see where it takes you.

Intentional Journaling

Another thing I do is journal every evening as my last act for the day. Believe me, it takes some effort to do it daily. The payoff is what makes it worthwhile.

I have written about journaling many times before so I won’t dive in too deep here. Instead, you can check out some of my other pieces on journaling below:

This is another act you can engage in for just five minutes a day. How do I know that? Well, there’s a journal that prides itself on that length of time so much it is in its title. So there you have it.

Slow Down (Somewhat)

I’m a big fan of work of Carl Honore. He’s a proponent of doing things slowly. He describes this philosophy below:

”The slow philosophy is not about doing everything in tortoise mode. It’s less about the speed and more about investing the right amount of time and attention in the problem so you solve it.”

The key part of this explanation is understanding the difference between using speed as a metric and using attention as a metric. The focus on speed as a more valuable metric over attention all the time is problematic. It plays a part in the corruption of the word “busy” and lends itself to pushing us towards more busywork.

We can’t slow down too much. We need to be mindful of when and how we slow down. We can do so intermittently over the course of our days, weeks, and months. Activities like disconnecting from devices and going for a walk slow us down. Meditation and journaling slow us down and serve to improve our productivity because of it. Planning – yes, planning – actually slows us down because instead of spending time executing actions, we invest time towards planning the execution of actions.

I’ve long said that personal productivity requires the marriage of intention and attention. Each on their own won’t cut it. Naturally, before those two can be married they need to be engaged first.

So perhaps the best way to make sure you give the phrase “I’m busy” its power back is to say it with this in mind: “I’m busy paying attention to my intentions.”

And then be busy about that.

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I'm Mike Vardy, better known as The Productivityist, and my goal is to offer ideas, insights, and information that will help you craft your time better and become more personally productive.


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