Do you remember when the standard answer to ‘how are you doing?’ was “So crazy busy!” Seldom did anyone follow up with, ‘So, what exactly is keeping you busy?’ Back in 2019 simply saying you were busy was enough. It sent off a signal that you were in demand and doing well. Because free-time was, well, free (i.e. unpaid), no one wanted it. In fact, the less free time you said you had, the more successful you appeared.
But then the pandemic hit, and something shifted, at least for those lucky enough to have enjoyed the flexibility of working from home. Almost overnight, being seen to be busy was no longer the measure of success it once was. And, far from being worthless, unpaid free time for ourselves and those we care about became seen by many as more precious than status or money.
The true value of free time
A recent Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 global workers showed that 41% were considering quitting or changing professions this year. Overwhelmingly they say they’re looking for more flexibility. Most want a hybrid model of working, where they split their time between an office and a remote location. 68% of workers believe this balance is the “ideal” workplace model.
Something about the pandemic made people realize that every unnecessary virtual meeting was eating away from the time they could otherwise have been spending doing something they actually enjoyed. Purely virtual interaction shone a spotlight on under-performers who try their hardest to project the illusion they are incredibly busy.
Of course, the same was true before the days of working from home, it’s just that when you’re at the office, you can’t slip away for two hours to practice the guitar or tend to your garden. With our office in the living room, however, it becomes much clearer that all this busyness is making us less productive, and is keeping us away from people and projects we’d like to spend time with.
Being busy wasn’t always the badge of honor it came to be. Even in the USA, with its strong work ethic, only 100 years ago having a lot of leisure time conferred status. In his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, the American economist Thorstein Veblen concluded the richer you were, the less work you’d have to do and the best way to signal your status was by boasting how much free time you had.
In my experience, the more in-demand someone is, the less they feel the need to project how busy they are. Highly successful people frequently give the impression that they have all the time in the world. Likewise, artists, entrepreneurs, or tech wizards may choose to fill every waking second in the pursuit of their dreams, but they won’t brag about how busy they are. In fact, they often pretend to have more ‘play time’ than they do.
Instead of seeming busy, why not make it clear that you are present, ready, and available?
People who love what they do understand that advertising how busy they are will ikely deter people from giving them more responsibilities or including them in new projects.
Only this week, a friend asked me if I was busy. I knew what they meant, of course. They meant is your life full and fruitful. But that word, busy, triggered me. You see, I value NOT being busy. I value having enough time for everything and everyone that’s important to me. So, instead of pretending to be busy, I told my friend I was trying my hardest to make sure I am never too busy.
And, there is a secret to being productive but not busy.
It may seem very obvious, but just say NO. Decline attendance at meetings where your presence is not essential. Turn down assignments that could better be executed by others. Politely refuse invitations that don’t serve you. Refer clients who are not your ideal client to other professionals. I do this all the time and it leaves me the space I need to properly serve the projects and the clients who were made for me.
Likewise, your inbox is mostly full of other people’s ‘to-do’ lists. Some requests you may feel compelled to answer. Delete the rest.
The average human life span in the developed world is 83.5 years or 1000 months. We each get the possibility of 1000 months, or 4,000 weeks, at birth and count down from there. On our deathbed, one of the most common regrets is “I wish I’d spent less time at work and more time with the people I loved.”
I can think of no better metric for success than being present and available. When someone tells me they have all the time they want for their heart’s deepest desires, I know they have attained a level of awareness and personal success which frantically busy people cannot even dream of.