How to Escape the Busy Trap
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I spent most of my life as the "busy" guy.
If anyone asked how I was doing, I would always respond with some variation of "so busy!" or "good, but really busy!"
I was actually busy, but it also became part of my identity—a weird brag I developed to try to signal my value and improve my own self-worth.
I'm willing to bet I'm not alone:
In the last month, how many times have you said some variation of "so busy!" or "good, just busy!" when asked how you're doing?
The number is probably high—probably much higher than you'd like to admit.
It's ok, you're not alone.
While this newsletter community has an extraordinarily diverse breakdown across geographies, ages, occupations, and more, the one common trait is that we are all growth-oriented.
Progress, improvement, and growth give us energy.
That is (mostly) good—it means we are inclined to deploy our resources on activities that compound towards a better future. Great.
Unfortunately, that "mostly" qualifier is very real. Our growth orientation also means that we are predisposed to fall into a trap—the Busy Trap.
In today's piece, I will deconstruct the trap to develop an understanding of why we're all so damn busy, how it's harming our lives, and provide a set of actions and rules to escape its grasp.
Let's dive right in...
Why Are We Busy?
In recent years, it feels as though everyone has gotten really, really busy.
If you're at a cocktail party, you're probably going to hear the word "busy" at least 100 times. Everyone is busy.
It's an interesting trend to observe, especially considering the body of research that is decidedly mixed on whether our actual hours of work and related commitments have increased.
In understanding this problem, I find it makes sense to deconstruct it into two separate parts:
- Why do we SAY we are busy?
- Why do we FEEL we are busy?
It's an important distinction.
Let's start with the former: Why do we say we are busy?
"Flex" or Status Signal
Busy has become the dystopian status symbol of the modern worker.
We have somehow decided that being busy is good, so we take pride in our busyness and wear it as a symbol of our value to society.
If we are busy, it must mean we are extremely valuable and generating prolific output.
Busy is used as a way to protect ourselves from scrutiny in the workforce.
If we constantly say we are busy (or show it), our superiors will never question our work ethic or output, and we will continue on a steady, monotonous upward climb through whatever hierarchy we find ourselves in.
I remember this one fondly. It's a staple in the worlds of finance and consulting.
Ok, so those are two core reasons we say we are busy, but how about the latter: Why do we feel we are busy?
It's no secret that we are living in an era of constant connectedness. Our digital devices are literally attached to our bodies at all times—sending us frantic notifications of the latest breaking news and urgent to-dos.
The COVID-19 pandemic and remote/hybrid work have arguably exacerbated the problem. With no fixed hours to a workday, we are free to remain connected 24/7, and our "bosses" feel we can be reached on that same schedule.
In many ways, connectedness is a paradox:
We're constantly connected, bombarded by notifications and dopamine hits. But while we have more connectedness, we feel less connected. More work, more to-dos, more meetings, more pings—less ownership, less accountability, less connection.
Constant connectedness means we feel busier, but find less meaning in the noise.
Optimization culture told you that unless you are making the most of every second of every day, you're missing out on growth.
I should know: I write A LOT about productivity and optimization. But I also write a lot about distancing yourself from it, finding time for boredom, and scheduling free time into your life.
When we constantly seek to optimize, we fill our time with movement (that may be completely devoid of progress).
Failure of Prioritization
The failure to prioritize is the greatest driver of busyness.
It falls into two categories:
- The Short List: There are rarely more than 2-3 things that truly matter at any point in time. Failure to identify and focus on them means we busy ourselves with everything on our 20 item list.
- Urgent vs. Important: Spending too much time on the urgent draws our attention away from the important.
Now that we've covered why we are so busy, let's briefly discuss the consequences of our perpetual busyness.
The Consequences of Perpetual Busyness
"Beware the barrenness of a busy life." - Socrates
There are a number of negative consequences that stem from living in a perpetual state of busyness.
The handful that I have observed (from my own experience):
- Failure to Progress on the Important: Busyness is a drain on the mind. It saps our creative energy and forces an inefficient allocation of our precious mental resources. You spend time on things that don't matter and miss the things that do. This typically means we move but never progress. We become a rocking horse: always moving, never going anywhere.
- Physical Health: When you feel busy, you give yourself excuses to cut corners. For a lot of people, this means they start missing on the big three of physical health: sleep, exercise, and nutrition. How many times have you used your busyness to justify missing a workout, eating an unhealthy takeout meal, or staying up too late? It's natural, but it's harmful in the long run.
- Mental Health: Feeling busy is a recipe for burnout. I've been there. If you feel overwhelmingly busy for long enough, you eventually break. Perpetual busyness is a huge negative for mental health and wellbeing.
- Gratitude & Enjoyment: When you're busy, you never stop to smell the sweetness in the air. I recently tweeted about the importance of stopping to acknowledge the beauty of a happy moment. When you're busy, you never do this. It's devastatingly harmful to our enjoyment of life.
Busyness is a boat anchor—it creates a drag that holds you back from reaching your potential.
"No one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is preoccupied with many things…since the mind, when distracted, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn." - Seneca
How Do We Escape?
Hopefully by now I have you convinced that busyness is a problem.
So let's talk about how we escape...
Reframe the Goal
The first step is to eliminate our desire to say we are busy. We need to remove "busy" as a positive signal from our collective consciousness.
The goal isn't to generate prolific input—the goal is to generate prolific output per unit input. With high output per unit input, you can decide on your level of input based on your personal situation and desires.
This is a similar reframe to one I've written about around reading:
It's a common flex to say you read 52 books a year. But that is much less impressive than reading one book and being deeply changed by it.
Let's reframe work and output similarly:
It's not about how many hours you work or how filled your days are with movement. It's about how much output you generate per unit of input. It's about the leverage on your input.
If you've escaped the trap, at your next cocktail party, take pride in declaring how anti-busy you are! Talk about the freedom you have to take walks during the day, think creatively about big, ambitious projects, and spend time with your loved ones.
Let's make anti-busyness the new flex!
Identify & Focus on the Important
Be deliberate about identifying what is important in your life and work.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about a simple strategy for identifying what is truly important:
- Make a List: Write down your top-25 priorities on a piece of paper. I personally find it hard to come up with 25, so I've done the exercise with 10 in the past. Basically, just write down all of your professional priorities.
- Narrow the List: Go through the first list and circle only the top 3-5 items. These should be the absolute top priorities in your professional life. These are the items that will have the greatest impact on your trajectory—the compounders. These are the items that TRULY matter.
- Split the Lists: Write down the top 3-5 priorities on one list. This is your focus list. Write down the other items on another list. This is now your "avoid-at-all-costs" list.
Once you've identified it, be ruthless in focusing on it. If anything new comes up, pull out your list and make a quick assessment of whether it falls into one of your priorities (or if it should be avoided at all costs).
Use the simple Eisenhower Decision Matrix as a tool to see how much time you are spending on urgent vs. important tasks.
Look for trends and seek to steadily increase the amount of time you are spending on the important.
Slowly find ways to delegate and delete the rest.
(Note: Delegation in a traditional/hierarchical corporate setting is often a challenge. I've been there. I will plan to write a future post on the topic of finding points of leverage in your systems and how to thoughtfully delegate and delete.)
“All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” - Blaise Pascal
In our hyper-connected world, we have been taught to vilify boredom, idleness, and free time.
We have been told that they are signs of stagnation and unproductivity.
This couldn't be further from the truth: Boredom and scheduled free time have long been a secret weapon of history's greatest minds.
We need to reclaim this practice in order to escape the Busy Trap.
To spark the change, try my Creative Boredom Challenge:
- 5 days, 30 min per day
- No technology allowed
- No books or reading
- No social interaction
- Dynamic (walking) or static
- Let your mind simply wander. Carry a small notebook to log any interesting ideas or insights.
Start scheduling more free time into your days—literally block it on your calendar if you need to force the issue.
Creating this free time will unlock you to think about the big picture. When you have free time, you have the headspace and bandwidth to pursue new ideas. Free time increases your luck surface area.
I think we're in the midst of a global busyness crisis.
And contrary to what you'd assume, it's making us all LESS productive, not more. What's more, it's negatively impacting a whole host of other areas of our lives.
It's time we all take a stand and fight back against busy.
To summarize, my three suggestions to escape:
- Reframe: Stop taking pride in being busy. Learn to take pride in your output per unit input.
- Focus: Use the 2-list strategy to identify what truly matters. Focus energy on the important. Delegate or delete anything that is pulling you away from that.
- Embrace Boredom: Schedule time to mentally wander. Avoid the obsessive optimization of your minutes and days.
I'd love to hear from you:
- Have you suffered as a victim of the Busy Trap?
- How have you found ways to escape it?
- Why do you find yourself telling people you're busy?
Reply to this email or tweet at me @SahilBloom and I'll do my best to get back to everyone!