Why Are We All So Damn Busy?

Too busy to find paper

“In our obsession with optimizing our creative routines and maximizing our productivity, we’ve forgotten how to be truly present in the gladdening mystery of life.” – Maria Popova

The truth is too many people wear busy like a badge of honor.

In fact, think about it, when was the last time someone you know, over the age of 18, complained about having too little to do? I’ll wait right here.

“Busy has a dangerous allure. If your normal is busy, it’s tough to sit quietly with your thoughts or to really feel what you’re feeling,” writes Dina Kaplan in “The Cult of Busy.”

Need more proof? According to Science Mag people would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts. How depressing, right?

“No one says they don’t have time to meditate because they need to scroll down Facebook and Instagram to ‘like’ various items, but that may be what’s happening.” – Dina Kaplan 

But why do we do this to ourselves?

Because it makes us feel important? To impress others?

Certainly, ego is part of it. Busy has become a status symbol, perhaps even more so than money, cars and houses.

Below are two other reasons that we’re too busy.


The industrial revolution is over. And so are 40 hour work weeks.

For many knowledge workers, there’s no such thing as work/life balance any more. I can’t even begin to fathom how working mom’s juggle everything.

And for hourly workers, those actually protected by the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, when is this last time their hourly rate went up?

Life got more expensive, and wages failed to keep up. In fact, wages have fallen to a record low as a share of America’s gross domestic product. Meanwhile, the cost of a college education increased 1,120 percent from 1978 to 2012. That’s not inflation or demand. It’s highway robbery.

Young adults, in particular, face an economic trifecta of low incomes, high living costs and high debt.

So what do we do?

We work more. Maybe we’re hoping someone will notice and we can climb the corporate ladder, but mostly we’re just hoping we can keep up and retain our jobs so that someone even younger, hungrier and willing to work for less doesn’t replace us.

We are tethered to our phones, expected to answer e-mails all hours of the day and night. The average American knowledge worker ends up acting like an on call physician. For what emergency?

There are exceptions to every rule (think: PR crisis), but seriously, how many times did you answer an e-mail after dinner that could’ve easily waited until the next morning?

The average employed American now works roughly a hundred and forty hours more per year than the average Englishman and three hundred hours more than the average Frenchman, cites Joeseph Stiglitz. (Current French law mandates that workers get thirty paid vacation days per year, British law twenty-eight; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero.)

Let me clue you in on a little secret I’ve learned. There will always be more work. And unless you’re Elon Musk, there’s a something called the law of diminishing returns.

After about 40 hours, you’re not going to be as productive anyway. I’ve seen research that actually shows it’s less (than 40 hours) for white collar knowledge workers. Maybe that’s why we have so many meetings?

It’s worthwhile to acknowledge that there are sometimes short term gains by buckling down with a critical deadline looming, but more commonly once fatigue sets in, you’re only going to deliver a fraction of your usual value.

Reserve some time for things that likely make you better at your job: sleep and exercise.

Go home. Spend time with your family. Refresh. Recharge. Play. Oh, and stop commuting. Longer commutes are associated with stress, pain, laziness, obesityand divorce.

Otherwise you’re just going to end up  burned out and resentful. And that won’t do shit for your organization’s bottom line.

Finally, I’ll just leave this right here: The #2 most cited regret of the dying? “I wish I didn’t work so hard.”


Are we making ourselves busy, crossing pointless tasks off of a checklist in order to avoid more important, but perhaps more intimidating, work?

Entrepreneur and critical thinker, James Clear, talks about being in motion vs. taking action. We’re all guilty of that, right?

How many of you started the year by reading 10-12 articles on dieting, but then didn’t cook and eat one healthy meal?

How many times have you made a checklist full of to-do items, only to complete a handful of the easiest things on the list? (Take out the trash. Send that e-mail.) And then started a new list the following week with all the big, hairy, important to-do’s still lingering at the top of the list? (Write the first chapter. Finish that metrics report).

Why do we slip into motion rather than take action?

“Because motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress without running the risk of failure.” – James Clear

Instead, what if we asked ourselves what should be on the to-do list in the first place? What if we picked 1-3 things that are really important to us, that would really move the needle?

Designer, artist, author, Debbie Millman says, our actions, not our words, reveal our true priorities:

“I’m a big proponent of ‘busy is a decision.’ You decide what you want to do and the things that are important to you. And you don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things. And if you aren’t doing them because you’re ‘too busy,’ it’s likely not as much of a priority as what you’re actually doing.”

Eric Barker says that the truth is we probably have more leisure time than ever, but it doesn’t feel like it because our time is so fragmented and we’re so bad at multi-tasking. (Yes, even my female readers who are better at it than their male counterparts).  Worse yet, multitasking doesn’t even work. It makes us less efficient even though we feel like we’re getting more done.

We need to stop cramming our lives full of compulsive activities, so that there is no time left to confront the real issues.

Focus on the things that matter most. Learn to say “no” to the things that don’t. Take action.

So our egos, our jobs and our tendency to procrastinate have made us overwhelmingly busy, which begs the question…

How did we end up here?

“How did we create a world in which we have more and more and more to do with less time for leisure, less time for reflection, less time for community, less time to just… be?” – Omid Safi

In 1928, John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay attempting to the predict the future. It was titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” (Free PDF). In this essay, he predicted that given technological innovations, and a handful of other factors, our lives would improve so much that we’d be able to work less and have more time for leisure. For more explanation, check out Elizabeth Kolbert’s “No Time: How Did We Get So Busy?” in the May 2014 edition of The New Yorker. Or The Economist’s “In Search of Lost Time: Why is Everyone So Busy?

Needless to say, this additional wealth has not translated into leisure. Aside from our egos, I blame consumption. Most of us seem to want more… more money, more stuff. Often at the expense of something more valuable, something we can’t acquire more of once it’s gone, more time.

“Money you lose you can always make back. But even five minutes of time lost is gone forever.” —  James Altucher

What If Money Was No Object? ~ Alan Watts

Really think about it. Would you rather have more money for a bigger house, a fancier car, and diamond earrings or would you rather have more time to visit with your aging grandma, play with your kids in the yard, have a drink with your friends?

I know, I know, you’ve never seen a sad person on a wave runner. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more, but ask yourself why. Maybe you want more so that you can buy back your time by hiring a maid or a chef so that you can spend more time with your family.

I would encourage you to examine why you’re so busy and just ensure those reasons are aligned with what you want out of this very short time here on earth.

This disease of being “busy” (and let’s call it what it is, the dis-ease of being busy, when we are never at ease) is spiritually destructive to our health and wellbeing,” says Omid Safi, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “It saps our ability to be fully present with those we love the most in our families, and keeps us from forming the kind of community that we all so desperately crave.”

More from Omid:

“We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about “leaning in” or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.”

What Am I (Personally) Doing?

I thought about busyness a lot in the second half of 2014. After tracking my time obsessively last year, I came to the conclusion that in addition to being very easily distracted by external noise, I also procrastinate a bit (in the form of completing ‘easier’ tasks to avoid more important, albeit less urgent, projects.

As a result, I’m not as productive and my output doesn’t match what *I think* it should be. To make up for it, I often work long hours and come in on weekends, which ultimately means I spend less time with my wife, my friends, my family, a good book, playing ,etc.

Needless to say, I’m trying to get better.

Here are three things I’ve tried to do so far in 2015:

1. Less Work

In reality, it’s not less work, it is just less physical time at the office. That’s the goal, anyway.

I’ve become hyper focused on managing my energy, not my time and not just being a “butt in a chair” after my energy has waned. In 2015, I’m trying to actually leave the office no later than 5:00pm (I get in before 7:00am).

My thought process is that if I force myself to leave by 5pm, everything has to be done by then, which forces me to do two things:

  1. Think critically about what is most important and prioritize getting it done first
  2. Protect my most productive hours (as best as possible in a modern work environment) and focus relentlessly on one thing at a time

As mentioned above, I *really* struggle with external noise while I’m trying to read critically, write, and think strategically. Because of this, I’m trying to get better about minimizing the distractions and interruptions that slow me down and make me feel obligated to play catch up on weekends. This year, I’m hoping to scale back to one 4-hour window every other weekend. And eventually get to no work on weekends at all.

To hold myself accountable, I constantly remind myself that this is a broken model:

“If I work harder, I’ll be more successful. And if I’m more successful, then I’ll be happier.”

Shawn Achor, the Author of The Happiness Advantage, uncovered research that actually found that the opposite was true:

If we can find a way of becoming positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster and more intelligently.” (Here’s his Ted Talk on “The Happy Secret to Better Work“).

My thought process is simple: If I’m efficient at the office and leave on time, I’ll be able to spend more time with my wife and on other things I’m passionate about. This will create ripples of positivity effectively making my brain work more efficiently at the office, ultimately creating better business outcomes for my employer.

2. Less (Digital) Clutter and Consumption

One of the things I started asking myself at the end of last year was, “How can I force myself to consume less, clear some clutter and open up more time to read (books), write, think, create and help more people — through my blog or otherwise?”

I read a lot of great things in 2014. In fact, here’s 125+ of my favorites. But I was also inundated by a lot of crap. There was a lot of good stuff too; nonetheless, things that distracted me from my most important goals.

As a result, I used the first week of 2015 to prune down my feeds, incoming e-mail (Unroll.me is your friend) and the people I actively follow on Twitter. I’ve essentially tightened my filters for what gets in my stream of consciousness.

This included unsubscribing from some newsletters that I love to read (NextDraft and Quartz, if you’re interested), but often felt obligated to thumb through even when I didn’t really have time or would rather be doing something else.

Why? Because I feared I was missing out on something interesting or ground-breaking. And yet that’s how your day gets eaten away, one minuscule bite at a time.

Theoretically, this should reduce the urge to consume a fire hose of information and provide more time (and mind space) to turn the best information into insights, knowledge and wisdom.

Or perhaps even more importantly, finding more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, for creativity and to create and add value to the world.

3.) What Does My Ideal Day Look Like?

With my first cup of morning coffee I write three things I’m grateful for and then proceed to ask myself “what would my ideal day look like?”

Of course, work days look very different than weekends, but I’ve found this to be an extremely useful exercise.

Most of you are familiar with identifying your most important tasks (MITs). Each day, I deliberately choose 1-3 MITs — typically 2 work-related and 1 personal. I try to put a dent in the most important work-related one before I even check e-mail. This ensures that if the office gets loud, I get interrupted a lot, pulled into meetings, have to put out a fire, etc. that I start the day off on the right foot with some momentum.

Beyond the traditional to-do list items, I also include things like, “I will take deep breaths and not get flustered when I’m interrupted from deep work” and “I will take a short, slow walk after lunch to re-calibrate.” It’s important for me to include things like this because my attitude and approach impact my day just as much as actually completing my projects. These statements also help me be more mindful so that I can leave frustrating work days at the office where they belong.

On the weekends an ideal day might look like: “I will wake up without an alarm. I will brew a pot of coffee and read 50 pages of a fiction book until Alaina gets up. We’ll go for a run. After, we’ll chat while I make a big breakfast and then we’ll watch one episode of a show together. I will catch up on work for an hour or two while she watches a terrible chick flick.” You get the point.

With my ideal day, including my most important tasks top of mind, I’m more prepared to push aside or ignore the things that would derail me from achieving the things I want/need to accomplish to have an awesome day.

A couple of others I hope to explore more often in 2015:

  • Saying “no” more often.
  • Schedule more leisure time (that doesn’t include my personal development goals).
  • Continuing to develop  systems and processes to automate things and save time.
  • Putting down my phone more often. Hell, not even bringing it sometimes.



What about you? Why are *you* so busy? What are you doing to combat that in 2015? Let me know in the comments.

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