A Precious Hour

6 min readJul 12, 2016

I am told that the manner by which others understand that I am busy is when my writing coherence suffers. This primarily occurs in email when whole words are dropped, sentences become jumbled, and logic falls on the floor. Rands, I literally did not understand what you were asking in that email.

Poorly written emails are an early warning of intense busy. Yes, I lack the time to proofread an email, but the mail is sent. At least I accomplished something. The step beyond this is when shit is truly falling on the floor, and while shit on the floor is professionally unacceptable, there used to be a point of irrational pride in my head during this situation: Look at me, how important I must be, with all the… busy.

It’s this irrational pride I want to examine because hidden inside of it is an insidious red alert situation.

The State of Busy is Seductive

7:15am. I sit down at my desk, fire up my calendar, and examine my day. Six meetings starting in 45 minutes. All are compelling, all are likely to lead to progress. Good. Switch to Asana and examine the backlog. I’ve got 45 minutes and 23 open tasks. Which of these should I prune? Which of these stay… Say, I’ve been meaning to call Joe for a week. I’ll call him now.

7:25am. Joe and I are on similar morning caffeination plans, so the call is high bandwidth. We’re done with our three topics in 10 minutes, and I’m now sporting the rush of not just completing a task, but completing it at speed. I need to parlay this intense rush — what’s next? Where else can I exceed my productivity expectations?

7:30am. Ok, now I’m rolling. I’ve skimmed my email and as I think of them, I’m writing tasks on a paper next to my keyboard, because I’ve somehow convinced myself that writing the task down on paper is faster than putting it in Asana. (Huh?) No matter — all hail the rush of getting things done. The cycle continues. Another task is knocked off, a sip of coffee, and now I’m headed into my 8am with a head full of palpable busy.

The Zone is a well understood mental state where you are fully dedicated to the problem in front of you. First, you take the time to get the complete state of the problem in your head, which then allows you to make massive, creative mental leaps using a precious type of focus that is fleeting. In the 45 minutes leading up to my 8am meeting, I did not get in the Zone. However, don’t tell my brain because I’ve worked hard to create the illusion that I am: massive amounts of data flowing about, a sense of purpose, and scads of coffee, but I am not in the Zone. I’m just busy.

The Faux-Zone

When an engineer becomes a lead or a manager, they create a professional satisfaction gap. They’ve observed this gap long before they became a lead with the question: “What does my boss do all day? I see him running around like something is on fire, but… what does he actually do?” The question gets personal when the now freshly minted manager begins to understand that life as a lead is an endless list of little things that collectively keep you busy, but, in aggregate, don’t feel much like progress.

The positive feedback an engineer receives in the Zone is the sensation that you literally performed magic. From the complete problem set in your mind combined with your weapons-grade focus, you build a thing that you immediately recognize as disproportionately valuable. And you see this value instantaneously — that’s the high.

I believe that leads and managers are forever chasing the high associated with the Zone, but rarely achieve them because their job responsibilities are in direct contradiction to the requirements to achieve it. We often lack the time to have the intimate knowledge of a problem space because we rarely have 10–15 minutes free to consider it.

The amazing set of skills we’ve built to compensate for this utter lack of context is impressive. You would not believe how many times your boss has walked into a meeting with absolutely no clue what is supposed to happen during that meeting. Managers have developed aggressive context acquisition skills. They walk into the room and immediately assess whose meeting it is, listen intensely for the first five minutes to figure out why they’re all there, while sporting a well-rehearsed facial expression that conveys to the entire room, “Yes, yes, I certainly know what is going on here”.

Like these context acquisition skills, we’ve also convinced ourselves that we have built a mental process that gives us the high that we’re missing in our interrupt-driven lifestyles. We’ve created the Faux-Zone.

In my 45 minutes before my 8am meeting, I did not enter the Zone, but I am in the Faux-Zone. It is a place intended to create the same rewarding sense of productivity and satisfaction as the Zone, but it is an absolutely fake Zone complete with the addictive mental and chemical feedback, but there is little creative value. In the Faux-Zone, you aren’t really building anything.

A Precious Hour

As a frequent occupant of the Faux-Zone, I can attest to its fake productive deliciousness. There is actual value for me in ripping through to my to-do list. I am getting important things done. I am unblocking others. I am moving an important piece of information from Point A to Point B. I am crossing this item off… just so. Yum. However, while essential to getting things done, the Faux-Zone is not a replacement for the actual Zone, and no matter how many meetings I have or how many to-dos are crossed off… just so… the sensation that I am truly being productive, that I am building a thing, is false.

My deep-rooted fear of becoming irrelevant is based on decades of watching those in the tech industry around me doing just that — sitting there busily doing things they’ve convinced themselves are relevant, but are just Faux-things-to-do wrapped in a distracting sense of busy. One day, they look up from their keyboard and honestly ask, “Right, so, what’s Dropbox?”

Screw that.

Other than spending time with my family, my absolute favorite time of the week is Saturday morning. I sleep in a little bit, walk upstairs, start the coffee process, and wander over to the computer. There’s a Dropbox folder titled “Latest Rands Articles” and right this moment there are 65 articles in progress there. After a brief stumble of the Internet, a precious time begins. I have precisely the right music on, in the center of my screen is a wall of words, and in that moment I’m decidedly not busy, I’m not working — I am building a thing and I need this time every single day.

Starting at the beginning of February, I made a change. Each day I blocked off a precious hour to build something.

Every day. One hour. No matter what.

Every day? Yup. Including weekends.

A hour? Yup, 60 full minutes. More if I can afford it.

Doing what? The definition of “building a thing” is loose. All I know is that I get rid of my to-do list, I tuck the iPhone safely away, and if there is a door, I close it. Whether it’s an hour of Choose_your_own_adventure Wikipedia research, an intense writing session, or endlessly tinkering with the typography on the site, it’s an hour well spent.

No matter what? Since I’ve started I’ve had roughly a 50% success rate of actually getting to my hour. The excuses are varied, but the data is compelling. Even at a 50% hit rate, I’ve written more, I’ve tinkered more, and, most importantly, I’ve spent over eight hours this month alone exercising the part of my brain I care about the most: the part that allows me to create.

What would you create if you had eight uninterrupted hours — every month?

An Insidious Situation

There is a time and place for the purposeful noisiness of busy. The work surrounding a group of people building an impressive thing contains essential and unavoidable busy and you will be rewarded for consistently performing this work well. This positive feedback can feed the erroneous assumption, “Well, the more busy I am, the more rewards forthcoming.” This is compounded by the insidious fact that part of being busy is you aren’t actually aware that you’re busy because you’re too busy being busy. You have no internal measurement of the amount of time you’ve actually spent being busy.

In my precious hour, I am aware that it is quiet. During this silence, maybe nothing at all is built other than the room I’ve given myself to think. I break the flow of enticing small things to do, I separate myself from the bright people on similarly impressive busy quests, and I listen to what I’m thinking.

Every day, for an hour, no matter what.




Michael Lopp. VP of Engineering at Slack. I favor bridges, critical thinking, and Mac'n'Cheese.