Agile · Ideals · Leadership · Planning

Why not to be busy

Between battling a strong winter cold, digging out from a few snow storms, lots of activity in my family and personal life, and several frantic projects at work I have been incredibly busy lately – too busy for blogging and some days even too busy for tweeting.  When I tell people that I am busy the most common response I get is, “That’s great! Better to be busy than bored.”

The problem is that I disagree.  I don’t think it’s great to be busy; I don’t think it’s good at all.  And I don’t think the only alternative to busyness is boredom (any more than I think the only alternative to cynicism is naivety, but that’s a blog post for another day).  Especially for those who work with their brains and on teams, being busy often means not having time to think and collaborate effectively.  Creative solutions come from slack – unstructured and unhurried time to wrestle with a problem.  I am by no means the only person who thinks this way (here’s one link to a piece on the value of slack and even a manifesto on why it matters, and you can find plenty of others out there as well).  There are many folks at the company where I work who agree with this perspective (many of them on the technology side) even as there are a good number who don’t understand at all when I suggest that busyness isn’t a goal to which I aspire.

Instead of being busy I’m striving to be productive – and that means sometimes I’m not ‘striving’ at all but talking time to go for a run, read random web postings, chat with team mates about comic books, or grab an unplanned hour to talk about different potential solutions to a problem we are facing.  Sustained busyness tends to undermine true productivity rather than enhancing it.  Keeping people busy doesn’t mean they are usefully engaged at work – sometimes it keeps them from being focused as they bounce reactively among the competing urgent tasks on their plates.

Will some people take advantage of a culture that values slack rather than busyness?  Sure, but those kinds of people won’t be strong contributors in any work environment.  Most people want to make meaningful contributions, they just need the right environment in which to do so.  Creating a culture that values slack – one in which the statement, “I’m really busy,” elicits a response of, “that’s too bad, is there anything we can do to help free up more of your time?” – will lead to greater productivity and happier people.  This is why I try not to be busy, but in truth it’s not that simple.


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