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Why “being busy” is bad

Working smart.

“The busy man is never wise and the wise man is never busy.”
– Lin Yutang.

Except, being “busy” seems to be a badge of honour, something to be proud of, a validation of how successful you are. Why is that?

Many of us strive to lead busy lives, traditional business thinking drives folks to be busy, do more and expand. At Connected, we mostly ignore that – we strive not to be busy.

Here’s our take on why being busy is super-bad for you, your family, your company, your health and your clients.

Being busy means:

  • times passes quickly. Your life can feel shorter, memories fade faster, you miss stuff on the way through. Your journey through life should be savoured, delicately consumed one morsel at a time – not shoveled in like junk food.
  • you have limited time to learn. Life is evolutionary and that means embracing and adapting to change. Without the free time to read, learn and experiment you run the risk of becoming increasing irrelevant in whatever you do.
  • sacrificing quality. Good quality comes from taking care and time, rushing stuff because you are busy always creates sub-standard output.
  • no time to think. What makes us so great is our ability to think, rationalise, invent and be creative. This needs lots of thinking time – time that is less abundant when you are busy.
  • opportunities are lost. Without the free time and mental capacity to play with new stuff you’ll miss out on crazy new stuff – and more than likely spend your time working on boring old normal stuff. I know what I’d rather spend my time on.
  • treating busy as a badge of honour. Quite clearly it’s not, it means you lack the efficiency and clarity or purpose to operate successfully in the world today.
  • your family will see you less. Unless you “work for works sake” (aka workaholic), your family should be the most important thing in your life.
  • having no spare capacity. If you’re working close to flat out then you have limited ability to “press on” – you’re already too busy so can’t take on anything else.
  • less time invested with clients. In the drive for profit, you’re less likely to explore new and exciting opportunities with them – you’ll focus on the safe, billable, humdrum approach.
  • taking risks is risky. Without any free time, you start to measure opportunity cost, and stare too closely on “what I could have billed”. This makes folks less entrepreneurial and more risk adverse which is usually a bad thing.
  • your health will suffer. Whether it’s mental stress, or plain old exhaustion, working too hard will tire you out and may shorten your life expectancy. When you’re tired you produce poor output and your efficiency is at it lowest.

But there are some perceived benefits of being busy, it’s a two-headed coin. If you’re paid by the hour, and not by quality or service, then clocking more hours equals more money. Even if you’re paid by output, on the face of it there are some marginal gains to be made by being busy, albeit at the expense of thinking, creativity, quality and service. So, gains are available if your work doesn’t need any of those things. Mostly, the benefits of being busy exist in more mundane, less creative environments that are anchored in a 19th century way of thinking.

Not being busy does have its pitfalls. The devil might make work for idle hands so it’s important that the unbusy individual is spending the free time in a productive or disruptive manner – watching Game of Thrones doesn’t count. But, mostly, an unbusy person can become busy – you almost never see a busy person transition to having time available.

How busy is busy enough?

Most non-creative roles are in the process of being de-skilled, automated or just plain cut. So, assuming your workspace has a creative element then you’re likely to need to use the ol’ noggin and that sets some boundaries on how much and how long you can work and also what defines you are busy.

We’ve been analysing resourcing and time recording data for over a decade so we know some hard facts:

  • Based on a 5 day week, the useful working week is under 25 hours.
  • Working efficiency starts to drop after 2hrs continual work, after which you must rest/stop for up to an hour.
  • Life/work learning should occupy at least 1/3rd of your available time. That equates to about 8hrs in a 25hr working week.
  • To balance operational life with opportunity and research, you should spend 1/3rd of your time on new stuff. Stuff not directly part of your paid work.
  • Booking billable hours is ok if you have to, booking billable days never works. It’s much better to measure by results and output.
  • The human brain struggles with more than 7 of anything. 7 items on a task list, 7 clients to manage, 7 staff, 7 projects, 7 wives etc. Having more than 7 of anything will make you busy, and possibly overwhelmed.

If you lack the discipline to manage this yourself you can apply this simple template to the day. It’s based on a 6hrs day with 90 mins of breaks so there’s lots of free capacity to expand and/or add extra blocks.

Read email/admin/operational stuff for 30 mins then graft for 90 mins on clever work stuff. Stop for an hour then read/learn for another 60 mins. Break for 30 mins and play/explore for 60 minutes. Finally, close your day off with 30 mins admin and planning for the next day. Then go home and spend time with your family, dog or fishing rods.

If you’re lucky enough to work at home (or nomadically) then you can spend your break time with family, hobbies, interests. That’s one area where working at home makes you vastly more efficient, and it also greatly speeds up the recovery phase. You may even be able to create 15hrs of brilliance in a working week – it really is that more efficient, even ignoring the saved commute time.

WTF, only work for 2.5hrs a day! Really? You can’t be serious!

Yes I am – 7.5hrs of brilliance per working week is something most individuals can only aspire to achieve, I think it’s a great aim – unless your aim is to produce low-quality output! Natch! And, squeeze your operational stuff into 5 hours per week is simple if you are ruthless.

The art, then, is how to accord the value of 7.5hrs of brilliance. Who ever said you needed to be busy? Be productive, be brilliance, but don’t be busy.

Footnote: I understand this is unconventional thinking, I appreciate it means that office space must have large chill-out zones and stuff to do to decompress. I also understand that it really only works with motivated, skilled staff who don’t need active management. It needs strong corporate management that buys into trust and co-working.

It also needs a product and service set, and client base, that make decisions based on quality, not price. None of this is cheap, or easy.

I was inspired to write this after being asked (for the twentieth time since the New year) “Are you busy”. Now, I know it’s the closest thing to business small talk but the unscripted responses I get when I say “Nope, absolutely not – that’s how I like it” made me realise that maybe some folks are just missing a trick. Or maybe I’ve got it wildly wrong.

My lack of “being busy” allowed me to take 2hrs out of my day to write this, even if just orders my thoughts it’s time well spent – and certainly not conventional, billable work.

//Martin