The most useful and counterintuitive productivity advice I was ever given was don’t be busy. Do less things. Commit to fewer responsibilities. Don’t try to fill your schedule up.
It’s strange advice because busyness is one of the things we most associate with productive people. Think of the CEO who works 100 hour workweeks or the academic who grinds non-stop to produce journal-worthy papers. Hardly lives free from busyness.
But the more I’ve tried this approach, the more I feel it is true (and that many, many of our notions about what it means to be productive are hopelessly entangled with *appearing* productive and are therefore screwed up).
Avoid Being Busy
Working hard isn’t the same as being busy. When I was working 60+ hours per week on the MIT Challenge, I was working hard, but I was never busy. I was never busy because, despite the workload, my calendar was almost always empty. If I had made lists of tasks during that time, most days would have just had one item on it—“study”.
Working hard can be exhausting, but it drains you in a different way than being busy. Being busy is draining because of mental overhead. You’re mentally juggling different goals, people, schedules, tasks. You’re squeezing in a fifteen minute lunch between two different commitments to work on two different projects.
Being busy has two major downsides:
- You end up sliding away from hard work which matters, and into easy work that doesn’t. Having a call with someone is easy. Penning and essay, writing code, finishing a design or learning something new is hard.
- Busyness breeds more busyness. A lot of busyness happens because you implicitly accepted responsibility for something. Busy people tend to accumulate responsibilities, often which have little to do with their goals.
Busyness can’t be completely controlled. Some professions and lifestyles require you to be busy. But you can almost always make changes at the margin—opting to be less busy, rather than more.
How to Not Be Busy
Busyness creeps up into your life the way messyness does into your house. Not all at once, but gradually, if you don’t attend to it.
Here’s some strategies to stop being busy:
- Be irresponsible. I’ve heard this strategy being employed by many successful scientists and academics (such as Richard Feynman or Amos Tversky). They feign being irresponsible and unreliable, so that people learn not to ask them to be busy.
- Only be busy once per week. I strive, whenever possible, to schedule all my calls, appointments and other time-fragmenting tasks on Fridays. That allows me to get everything done with and save the rest of the week relatively unscathed. It’s often unachievable, but even by trying to push things onto one day, I end up saving large chunks of my week from busyness.
- Be disconnected. When someone asks you for your time, it’s very hard to say no. That’s why one of the best strategies for not being busy is being difficult to reach. For some people that means not having an email address, but requiring anyone interested in communicating to mail a physical letter. For others, that can mean opting out of social media or severely curtailing it.
- Have fewer projects, ideally only one. Most now know the dangers of multitasking. But I believe multiprojecting can be just as bad. Having only one or two big projects on the go is a surer recipe for accomplishment than juggling dozens of conflicting priorities.
- Be wary of any commitment that doesn’t end. Any commitment that requires ongoing effort, however small, will quickly consume a lot of your time. Sometimes this is unavoidable (exercise, sleep, etc.), but often it is. I switched from writing 10x per week to once per week with zero impact on my traffic, subscribers or sales. Sometimes doing less really is more.
- Tell people you’re busy, even when you’re not. I feel this is one of those socially acceptable lies you should practice saying more often. “Sorry, I’m too busy,” is much easier to say and swallow than the truer, but less polite, “What you’re offering me isn’t important enough to merit my time.”
- Strive for days you’re not sure how to fill, rather than having tasks you’re not sure where to fit. You’ll know you’re successful in eliminating busyness if you look at your schedule and see large, blank swaths of time on your calendar you’re unsure what to fill with rather than dozens of tasks you’re not sure where you’ll be able to fit in.
Virtues of an Unbusy Life
My life is usually not busy. I look at my calendar and it is either blank or with one appointment on most days. That means I can sleep in if I want, take a long lunch, call a friend to chat in the middle of the day, read a book or learn something new I find interesting.
The outcome of this superficial laziness, however, has been very positive. Having large chunks of empty time necessitates filling them with something. The less busy I am, the more likely that’s going to be big, hard, important projects.
This philosophy certainly hasn’t hurt me professionally—in the last year my business grew revenue by six times, released two new courses and added new full-time employees. I was even able to squeeze in a public ultralearning project as well. I’m not sure I could have done as much if I had been busier.
Unfortunately, despite fairly unambiguous success from this strategy, the social pressure to be busy is enormous. Even I feel it, and I’ve managed to escape working in an office where seeming busy is often seen as a substitute for doing good work.
The biggest downside of the unbusy philosophy, in my experience, is that you must constantly wrestle with the socially conditioned feelings that you really should be working more, filling up every spare moment of your calendar and busying yourself with things—just like everyone else. However, if you can avoid the temptation, I think there’s great things waiting to be done by ambitious, hardworking people that choose to be less busy.