Are You Too Busy? Or Just Gutless?

Clock“I don’t have enough time.”

Being busy is a good way to avoid risks. You’re too busy doing the routine things to try the non-routine things that might scare you. If you aren’t sensitive to the words you use, you might not even realize you do this. The fear of unknown gets excused so quickly, you don’t even realize your just being gutless.

In Toastmasters, I often find new visitors hesitate to take larger roles. They often tell me that they are “too busy” to take on the added work.

But many times, the role would require little extra work, but has a lot more fear. They automatically use the too-busy excuse to avoid doing something that might scare them. Stepping up requires more courage than time.

How to Avoid Doing Anything New

Fill your life with a routine so packed, it can’t possibly hold something new. By building a fortress of regular work, you can bet that you’ll never have time to do anything unknown. Every activity you do has a known cost and benefit. Nothing too risky, everything too bland.

Don’t use time to build your coffin.

The busyness might be genuine. The last two months have been some of the busiest weeks of my life. But I can’t let that extra pressure cut myself off from taking new risks. When you stop taking risks you stop learning.

I recently met with a friend who is a professional speaker. I haven’t done any paid speaking yet, and was interested in the business. He pointed out a couple opportunities. My initial reaction was simply to put them off when I have more time. But “having more time” might be a day that doesn’t come too soon, so I decided to plan for it now.

Fear of the Unknown Costs

When you don’t have a lot of extra time, it seems useful to avoid activities with unknown costs. Stick to what you know when you’re under pressure, right?

In the short-term, avoiding unknowns because you’re busy makes sense. If you only have one day off what which would you choose:

  • An activity you know you’ll enjoy.
  • Something you’ve never done before and might hate.

When time is precious, speculative randomness is the first thing that gets tossed. You’re afraid that the costs might be too high.

But over the long-run this behavior is dangerous. Continually avoiding the unknown costs insures that you slowly cuts you off from new information. The worker who is so busy she can’t experiment with freelancing might be surprised to find that she enjoys it more and it pays better.

The Price of Being Busy

Imagine we’re inside a special casino. In this casino the odds favor the gamblers, even though most of them don’t realize this.

The first machine you try gives an average of eleven coins for every ten you put in. Amazed at your 10% profit, you play this machine fiendishly, refusing to move.

What if, the slot machine next to you paid out twenty coins for every ten you put in, ten times the profit. That machine is far more profitable. But because you refuse to move from your seat, you can’t try out the other machines. The best profit you can ever receive is 10%, while other gamblers might be enjoying profits of 100%, 1000% or more.

This casino is like life. It is easy to fall into a routine and refuse to seek randomness. Especially if things are going moderately well, you might be tempted to avoid taking risks and just stick with the machine you have.

In the short run this strategy might even benefit you. Trying out different machines can take time and some might be less profitable than your first one. But as long as you use busyness as an excuse to try new things, the 10% machine will be all you’ve got.

The 20% Rule Applied to Life

Employees at Google are required to devote 20% of their time to personal projects. Google management recognizes that this 20% might be wasted. Engineers might come up with horrible products that nobody wants. But by allowing gutsy and creative ideas, they can come up with innovations faster and cheaper.

I suggest applying the 20% rule to life. That means that 20% of your time is being invested in speculative activities. Activities that you’ve been doing for less than six months or have changed enough that the learning curve is still steep.

Applying the 20% rule requires guts and it requires a bit of initial sacrifice. You need to give up the guaranteed sources of money, productivity or fun, to make room for unknowns. But by taking a 20% cut now, you might stumble upon opportunities you never new existed.

Here are some jumping off points to get you thinking:

  1. 20% of your work. Spend twenty percent of the time you spend working trying something different. If you do most your work through an employer, spend 20% to try a bit of freelancing.
  2. 20% of the people. Network outside your group. Don’t just spend time with your friends but strive to spend twenty percent of your social time meeting new people or getting to know people you’ve known less than three months.
  3. 20% of the fun. Keep your leisure time varied. Force yourself to try new hobbies, activities or professions. I’ve had hobbies that include: music composition, woodworking, Latin dancing and public speaking.

Don’t let your busy life make you gutless.