The Fallacy of Being Busy
When people used to ask me how business was, the response filled me with pride. “I’m really busy, working late nights, getting up early and drinking heaps of coffee.”
They’d nod in appreciation of my work ethic, and we’d talk about working hard now, so that we can relax later in life, doing it for the kids and supporting the people around us.
I was embracing the lie that if I was busy, I must be successful. Even if I ended up earning less for a period of time, at least I’d been working hard and doing everything I could.
At least I hadn’t been enjoying myself.
There’s a strange distinction between ‘working’ and ‘having fun.’ It says that if we’re having fun doing something, it must not be work. We aspire to do things we enjoy, but in the end, the oddly harsh rules of practicality prevent us from acting on these aspirations.
“You’ve gotta work hard if you want a good life.”
When I took the leap into self-employment, I swore that I would be effective, and find the time to enjoy myself and balance that with focused work time. It worked, for about a week.
Day One — Up at 7:00 am, head to the gym, in the office by 7:30 am, work until 10:30 am, then coffee with friends, brisk walk for lunch, intense afternoon of focused time, home by 5:00 pm.
Boom, that’s how you have an energetic and productive day.
The following Monday, things looked a little different-
In the office by 6:30 am, work until caffeine or food is required (scoff down at my desk), work until eyes no longer work, home at 11:30 pm, kiss sleeping daughter on head, drink three beers, pass out on the couch.
The weird thing is, it felt better to be working insane hours, getting little sleep and not see my family as much. I was now the bold protector, creating things off the sweat of my brow. I was the cornerstone of capitalist society, a hard worker. Happy, drained, and living the start-up dream.
As I continued to push myself, I disengaged from non-work things in my life. Social gatherings and special occasions were relegated to ‘might do,’ and the gym — in fact, any exercise that didn’t involve a notebook or keyboard — was long forgotten.
I became selfish in my selflessness. I was in love with the feeling of accomplishment that came from hard work, the thrill of building something from nothing — I was too busy for anything else.
After about a month of not seeing me, a friend of mine, a novelist, came to see me at the office. He brought coffee and we chatted about what I was doing, and how his latest book was going.
“It isn’t,” he said.
“It’s not ready yet,” he played with his coffee cup absentmindedly. “It’s due in a few weeks, so it had better hurry up.”
“So write it,” I said. “What are you doing here talking to me?”
My friend looked at me as if I was stupid — in retrospect he had a point. “I am writing it. I write while I’m walking, typing, chatting to you, lying in the sun or playing with my kids. Don’t you think about your work all the time? You love writing as much as I do.”
Busyness, for me, had become location based and effort-centric. If I wasn’t actively doing something that fell into the location or effort spheres, I wasn’t working. If I wasn’t in the middle of the process, or struggling to meet a deadline, then I wasn’t making enough of an effort.
Being effective is one thing — but only if it’s balanced with much-needed ineffectiveness. Nature works in this way; wake up, be active, sleep. For me, when I try to prove something to myself and others through being busy, everyone loses.
For me, success is about being busy — but that’s because I always am. I love what I do and create in my sleep and when I’m riding my motorbike or playing with my daughter. That, balanced with focused tangible work, makes for one pretty special life.
Being busy isn’t bad, but working for no reason certainly is. As I get older (I suppose this happens to most people) I realise more the importance of doing things while I’m young. I’ve also noticed how much that improves the quality of my work, my relationships and how I feel about myself.