It’s a Thursday at noon, and I am done with my meetings for the day. It’s a Thursday at noon, and I am not busy. It’s a Thursday at noon, and I am happy about not being busy today. So there.
I’ve had a few really nice weekends in January that were quiet – not busy – and when sharing my weekend’s events with peers on Monday by saying “I didn’t do much,” I got funny looks as if to say, “is everything okay?”
Many see busyness as a virtue and a status symbol. While the characteristic is often associated with people of greater impact, status or intellect, it is as much true that busyness befalls people who are disorganized, over-committed or unable to prioritize. Neither perspective is necessarily true. The answer depends less on the state and more on the individual person and their job function.
I use the word “befalls” above intentionally. If you ask most busy people in the moment if they like being so busy, they will answer negatively or at least demure. Few truly enjoy it. So what gives?
It turns our that busyness as a status symbol is a recent phenomenon. In Joe Pinsker’s Atlantic article identifying busyness as a status symbol, there is an insightful exploration of the origins of busyness. In short, busyness used to be a curse of the poor. If you had less, you had to work more. If you had more, you displayed your status by working less. In economic terms, little wealth meant your labor needed to sustain you, while great wealth meant your capital could do the work for you. Today the opposite is true. We now see many wealthy and successful people pushing both their labor and capital to the extreme, while many unfairly dismiss the poor as “lazy”. This has engendered a set of heuristics in society that reinforce busyness as a virtue. As they say, “if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.”
Aside from personal and life preferences (do you see your family, talk to your friends, pursue hobbies?), it turns out that whether busyness is actually productive as a work style is very dependent on the type of job you occupy. Cal Newport’s Deep Work explores this question in detail. He defines two extreme personas, the successful company executive versus the highly productive academic. Newport posits that the company executive is a “decision machine”, making high velocity decisions based on summary data from trusted team members and deep experience. The best executives make lots of good decisions quickly, either in parallel or in rapid successions of meetings. They are busy in the traditional sense and should be.
On the other hand, Newport finds that the most productive academics (as measured by published articles and citations) are the ones who lock themselves in their office, ignore email and work on one problem for days, weeks, months straight – a behavior that would solicit a lot of “what the hell are they doing in there?” from anyone but other academics. They are not “busy” by today’s definition, but both roles can create a lot of value in society.
As an investor, I often ask myself where I should fall on the spectrum. In one way, the job of pursuing and meeting entrepreneurs for potential investment is a high throughput “busy” process of emails, calls and meetings. On the other hand, venture returns are made when you make a non-consensus bet that turns out right. To do this requires assimilation of ideas through reading and talking to others… as well as thinking. It requires unstructured time. I find it is in these calm times that I find the confidence in our very ambiguous investing stage to make decision on where and where not to invest (or to collect my thoughts in a long term blog post!). Indeed, the likes of Oprah and Buffet are known to carve out time for similar purposes with a “five hour rule”, one hour a day each week day. See how I slyly added myself to a list with Oprah and Buffet? 😊
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to do. And because of technology and constant connectedness, we can do more through more of the day and more of the week. I am as guilty as the next person of rescheduling meetings, pushing calls or acting distracted all in the name of being busy. When I get on the phone with an entrepreneur and apologize for being late or rescheduling, they often say “no problem, I know you’re busy.” My response is that I know they are busy too, and busyness is not an excuse. It’s a choice.