• Author Tim Metz

My dirty little secret: I’m not so busy

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Who isn’t busy these days? Everyone always seems in a constant rush to their next appointment, even toddlers. And of course, on our way to those meetings we need to stay up to date on our email, share with the rest of the world how busy we are through Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, while we also try to catch up on… oh, a new email just came in.

King of busy: the startup founder?

Perhaps tech startup founders, more than anyone else, epitomize the modern busy human. They have money to raise, investors to please, a web site or app that’s open for business 24/7, people to hire, and a million other things to do. Especially in early stage startups, founders tend to wear many hats, from engineering to marketing to finance to HR, and all those responsibilities create a never ending to-do list. To make matters worse, society expects an entrepreneur to be busy. Imagine hearing from a business owner that he’s not drowning in his own todo list. That either means business is bad, he’s not pulling his weight or something else must be wrong.

To make matters worse, in the USA, working harder is the solution thrown at most professional problems. Here’s Gary Vaynerchuk, a self-proclaimed hustler entrepreneur, proudly suggesting you too, should work during Christmas if you ever want to achieve anything in life. According to research, it seems a lot of people in the USA indeed follow his advice:

"Adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of 47 hours per week, almost a full workday longer than what a standard five-day, 9-to-5 schedule entails. In fact, half of all full-time workers indicate they typically work more than 40 hours, and nearly four in 10 say they work at least 50 hours."

While on the surface this might seem to make sense (more = better), history teaches us otherwise. Having built Ford Motor Company from scratch and being one of the driving forces behind adoption of the conveyor belt and mass production, you’d expect Henry Ford to know a thing or two about hustling and business optimization. And it was none other than this great industrialist himself who figured out -- in 1926 -- a five day, 40-hour workweek was better for long-term productivity than running his employees into the ground with non-stop work.

If 40 hours per week is the sweet spot for people doing physical work in a factory, could it really be that constant overwork is the way to go for those of us with creative, white collar and "office" jobs?

"Busyness and exhaustion should be your enemy. If you’re chronically stressed and up late working, you’re doing something wrong. […] Do less. But do what you do with complete and hard focus. Then when you’re done be done, and go enjoy the rest of the day."

This excerpt comes from an article by Cal Newport about a study of elite violinists in Germany. There were two key differences between a regular week of an elite achiever and one of an average performer:

  1. Working smart. While they spent the same amount of time practicing each week, the elite guys used that time strategically, to specifically work on their weak spots (something called deliberate practice). In other words: they worked smart.
  2. Leisure time and sleep. The best of the best worked in two clear “sprints;” one in the morning and one in the afternoon, while the average players spread out their practice across their day in little chunks.

There is more to these results than meets the eye. While our stereotype image of elite achievers is probably one of chronic busyness and hustling, the opposite is often true, and not only with violin players.

The handful of truly successful people I happen to know personally -- individuals who are not only at the top of their game but also seem to be happy and satisfied -- do not live in a constant rat race of overpacked schedules with endless meetings and 60+ hour workweeks. Instead they are calm, take time to think, read books and don’t stretch themselves thin. The same was true for the violin players that were studied: the elite players enjoyed their leisure time and slept an hour more each night than the average musicians.

Have we got it all backwards?

Let’s play devil’s advocate here: maybe these success stories can plan their days like that because they are successful? They have enough money and talent, they can be in charge of their own schedules and decide autonomously what to work on. In other words, their non-busyness is the fruit of their success, not the other way around.

Looking at my own experience over the past 12 months, I’m starting to believe success might be a result of not being too busy. While I’m not anywhere near what you might define as true success (no matter which way you look at and define the term), it has definitely not been a bad year. We’ve made lots of progress with Saent at quite incredible speed, and personally, I’ve probably never been more happy, relaxed and healthy. Most importantly, ever since I started working professionally in the late nineties, I’ve never before been so not busy.

What does not busy look like?

  • Anything that is walkable in approx. 30 minutes, I walk. This means I’m spending on average an hour per day as a pedestrian.
    I hardly ever work for more than three hours in a row, with little breaks every 50 minutes and considerable pauses (one hour or more) between those three hour stretches.
  • I’m reading lots of books. About one each week. In fact, I’m starting every day with at least half an hour of reading and hope to increase this further, closer to Warren Buffett levels one day.
  • I hardly ever run for the train or subway anymore; there’s always the next one. This might sound crazy, but it puts me in a calmer state of mind across the board (or maybe I’m just crazy; it is definitely a possibility).
  • I’m playing a game of chess almost daily.
  • I meditate regularly (few times per week) and take occasional naps in the afternoon.
  • I sit down to listen to music at least once per week for 30 - 60 minutes, without doing anything else than just listening.

As you can imagine, this not busy lifestyle takes up considerable amounts of my available time. In fact, it leaves me with only (?) about 35 effective hours worked each week (on average). To put that in perspective: before starting Saent, I used to regularly pull in 45 - 50 hours of actual work each week for years on end.

Nevertheless, I don’t think I’ve ever made as much progress and executed something as well as we’ve been doing with Saent over the past 12 months. And this is where the elite violin players come back in: my rhythm is now similar to theirs. Instead of working in little, half-hearted chunks throughout the day, I work in a few very concentrated, high energy and high focus bursts. In between those, I’m not actively working, but of course I’m thinking and my mind has a chance to recover. This ensures that every time I do sit down to work, I have very deliberately thought about what I’m going to work on next and consistently pursue the truly important stuff on my plate.

Over time this deliberateness and peace of mind builds up into a strong foundation: you’re working on more of the right stuff and what you do is of better quality, so fewer tasks get left for the last-minute, which in turn leads to fewer emergencies. In other words, you don’t spend all your time fixing mistakes if you have had the time and peace of mind to think things through carefully before you get down to work.

Essentialism

There is another paradox at work: when you have less time available for work, you have to make better choices about what to work on and what not (anyone who’s recently become a parent seems to be able to attest to this). It forces you to think like an Essentialist and only do those things which are truly important, not all the other stuff that normally fills up your calendar and todo lists, but doesn’t really contribute to anything over the long-term.

This problem has only been exacerbated with the explosion of always-on, and often free, communication tools. The barriers to asking for a favor or commitment are lower than ever. This leads to more incoming requests for our time. Unfortunately most of us haven’t become better at saying no, which is hard. Saying no means disappointing a friend or colleague. It means fueling the fear of missing out. In the moment, saying yes is usually easier than saying no. But in the long run, this means you end up with tons of commitments you can’t fulfill. Worse, all these different activities degrade the quality of everything you’re doing, as none of them can get your full attention.

Not being busy requires saying no a lot. The rate at which I’ve been declining invitations to parties and events over the past year is alarming (not in the least place to my friends; sorry guys). Similarly, it’s not easy to refuse ego-stroking offers such as sitting in on an awards jury or giving a training, nor is declining requests at work that don’t belong on your plate. Especially since the norm seems to have become that your calendar can and should be filled to the brim. But that’s not how it should be at all; you need empty space and time!

The culprit is in the mirror

Perhaps the hardest of all is being realistic about your own ambitions. Looking around in my social environment, most people seem to think you should be able to manage a busy, full-time job, have kids (or party like a rockstar), play sports, have an active social life, stay up to date on all the latest TV series, read books, study something, perhaps start a business on the side in your spare (?) time, meditate, be available for your daytime job 24/7, earn that promotion, and of course, be active on Facebook, LinkedIn and perhaps Instagram. All of this then gets topped off with a constant barrage of emails and WhatsApp messages. Phew!

Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s admirable that human beings even consider undertaking such an endeavor. But what are the odds you can enjoy any of it, let alone be successful at even one of those things? Worse still, most people I know feel guilty for not being able to pull it off. Their solution is usually right out of Gary Vaynerchuk’s hustler playbook: work even harder. Get up an hour earlier, work evenings, work weekends and, indeed, work during Christmas.

The real solution 

The key to not being so busy therefore lies in making hard choices, setting limits and understanding you can’t do it all (and that’s ok!). Prioritize activities which reflect a not so busy lifestyle; walking, reading, not running for the train, and so on. While these might sound like superficial steps to take, they will put you in a more relaxed mindset, which trickles down into other areas of your life (like work). They give you time to think throughout your day and force you to let go of other things.

Again, this is not easy. It means you have to first decide what is truly important. Career, social life, family, self-development, leisure time? And must determine how much you value things like money, health, recognition and having fun. None of these things are good or bad; there’s not really a wrong choice. But pursuing all of them is a recipe for disaster, which is what most of us try to do. Therefore find out what is important1 to you and block out everything else.

One last thing: saying no is difficult and not being able to decline requests for our time is probably one of the main things that got us in this out-of-control-busy situation in the first place. Paradoxically, being busy is perhaps the most socially-acceptable answer for ducking out of almost anything. Nobody will lift an eyebrow when you refuse or cancel a commitment because you’re too busy. Use it to your advantage; the cloak of feigned busyness is the best way to hide your new not-so-busy lifestyle from the rest of the world and keep your calendar serene!

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