When Busy is Bad

Have you noticed that when you ask someone how they are, they often respond with one word: “Busy.” Apparently, busy is their state of being: not healthy or sick, happy or sad,  excited or anxious. Yet the word busy is fundamentally neutral and doesn’t tell the whole story about one’s current state. After all, one can busy and happy about it (especially when compared to the alternative of under-employment) or one can be frustrated by it. And yet we persist in describing ourselves as busy.

Clearly, the word “busy” is meant to convey a wealth of meaning. But what meaning? In some circles, it means that one is fully engaged. For a lawyer, it can mean full utilization. Perhaps it even suggests a high level of productivity. But that would be misleading. As we have been learning in the legal industry, a high level of input (our effort is no more than an input), does not necessarily ensure a high level of output or, more importantly, a good outcome. And it certainly does not ensure a high level of value from the perspective of the client.

But there is an even more troubling side to our propensity to describe ourselves as busy.  As Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journalling method, noted in his TEDx talk at Yale:


“Being busy doesn’t mean that you are being productive.

A lot of the time, being busy just means that you are in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”

Carroll says that this extraordinary level of busyness stems from the extraordinary amount of choice we have. After all, every choice requires us to make a decision. And every decision requires focus. But here’s the rub: Focus requires our energy and our time — our two most valuable resources. According to Carroll, every unnecessary choice is a distraction. As we eliminate those unnecessary choices, we reduce distractions, thereby increasing our available time and focus. So unless we are disciplined about reducing the number of unnecessary choices in our life, we end up depleting our most valuable resources without a corresponding benefit.

Ryder Carroll’s TEDx talk hit me with extra force as I wrap up an amazing year in which I started a new job with fabulous possibilities. As I have learned, all those possibilities have led to a To-Do list that just won’t stop. I’ve tried working until I get closer to the end of the list, but that is a recipe for exhaustion rather than a sustainable approach. (After all, it’s a never-ending list.) So my resolution for 2019 is to be even more deliberate in assessing What goes onto my To-Do list, understanding that every task on that list represents a choice that requires a decision, my focus, and my nonrenewable time.

How will you deal with your own never-ending To-Do list in 2019? How will you avoid the state of being functionally overwhelmed?

My wish for all of us is that we have a truly productive and satisfying 2019.

Happy New Year!