When I commute to work in the morning, I stand near the middle of the aisle away from the train doors. I do this not because I like getting cozy amidst somnambulists, but rather to save myself from the outpour of those eager bodies waiting to alight at full speed. I watch closely, curiously, as they stand nose-to-door, akin to athletes toeing the starting line of a sprint. The doors open; off to the races. Like a funnel, the rush narrows (without slowing) as people dart up the escalator and through turnstiles. Not since my secondary school track season have I witnessed such inspired speed, though the catalyst here isn’t a brazen unsmiling coach, but an addiction to busy.
Productivity once stood for doing more with less. Now, it’s degenerated into perpetual busyness. A full-capacity schedule is touted as a measure of success while freetime remains something to admonish. How did we arrive at this awry conclusion? The same way we do everything: in a rush.
Expressions such as ‘I don’t have time to hang out, I’m far too busy,’ or ‘I’m too busy to exercise or sleep more’ belong on a list of colloquialisms. It was likely just yesterday that, when you were asked ‘How are you?’ you answered with your typical ‘Busy, real busy!’ and it was received positively, admiringly even.
What does ‘busy’ really mean? Are we too busy to walk instead of run? To make time for friends and family? To take care of our health? With brimming schedules and minimal respite, priorities shuffle and productivity suffers—all in the name of being busy.
Our perception of success is closely aligned with the time we spend on something—how busy it keeps us—rather than what we achieve—our productivity. We move forward at a blistering pace and often indiscriminately, reflexively take on tasks. Meetings, assignments, emails—our most important tasks are shrouded by trifles. People have become addicted to busy and it’s taken a toll on productivity.
As a student, I once prided myself on my ability to remain in the library for long hours. I’d book-end a full day of class lectures with hours in the library, thinking myself productive. Ten-hour stints in the library were ordinary for me; I would brag about these to friends. Yet, my ‘productive’ sessions were plagued with coffee breaks, social media distractions, and mindless reveries—all of which were (and remain) inevitable during marathon study sessions.
I was married to the hustle culture pervasive among university students—I was obsessed with busy. I focused on how much time I spent at the library rather than quantifying how much work I’d actually completed. With my only priority measured in hours, it became easy to fill the time. Was I busy? Undoubtedly. Productive? Hardly.
Remaining in this state for too long can prove detrimental to much more than our productivity. This summer, the World Health Organization classified workplace burnout as an occupational syndrome. Burnout can result in exhaustion, mental detachment and poor performance. As a student, these conditions can be overbearing atop existing academic pressures.
More with Less
In The 80/20 Principle: The Secret to Achieving More with Less, Richard Koch posits that the majority of our success stems from a disproportionately small portion of our efforts. He advocates focusing 80% of our energy on the vital 20% of tasks at hand—maximal effectiveness with minimal busy work. In other words: prioritize.
Make a list of your 10 most important tasks—homework, exams, lecture notes—and cut it in half. Then, cut it in half again. Prioritize your priorities. Eliminate the non-essential. Rather than spreading ourselves thin across a bevy of tasks, we can make better use of our time by targeting a select few items. This involves saying no to things that don’t contribute to your overarching goal. When presented with something new, ask yourself if it pushes you closer to or further from your primary goal.
Productivity isn’t about working at full speed all the time. It’s about saying no to things and narrowing our focus; it’s about working intentionally rather than indiscriminately. When we are too busy with things that don’t matter, we neglect the things that do—mental and physical health deteriorate, relationships suffer.
It’s time to break our addiction to busy.
This article was originally published in No. 546, Newsletter in Nov 2019.