On being busy

Increasingly over the past few years, I’ve been around lots of busy people.

People who:

A friend told me about how the culture at CMU is lots of ambitious and driven folks who don’t feel like they’re doing enough unless they’re constantly occupied. So instead of aiming to finish the work they have, they pile on more so that they’re in a constant state of business.

Every time I visit SF I come across the idea of a maker/manager or founder schedule: 9-7 work, dinner and chill for 1-2 hours 9-1 more work (sometimes see friends but work before bed still).

I constantly find my best work is done in a state of pure productivity between 12-3 am - often letting me finish days worth of work in a couple hours if it’s a really good session. Yet I still consider myself “busy”/blocked off from doing things I want to do from 10-6 because I’m working.

The feeling of busyness feels inherited.

If you went to a top school, chances are you met a lot of people who felt busy all the time who also happened to be extremely smart, driven, ambitious and had other extremely desirable qualities. Which might lead you to associate people who are busy with people who have those desirable traits and mimic their style of life in hopes that you’d mimic those traits.

Top schools also have a lot of work so you would also be very busy with that. Pile on internships, clubs, social events, exercise and living by yourself for presumably the first time in your life - college is an extremely busy time.

If you’re so used to being occupied by stuff all the time, when that stuff goes away and you have to think about what you actually want in life, it can feel easier to bury those thoughts with more work and feign productivity to avoid answering the uncomfortable esoteric questions in life.

Busyness feels like a psy-op, kind of like cleaning your house before you have guests over. We make ourselves busy because other cool people around us are busy which they are because the cool people around them are busy and so on. Similarly, we clean our houses before someone visits because the last time we went to someone’s house it was clean because they went to someone’s house and it was clean because they… why don’t we all just admit that we live somewhat messily?

I find myself falling into the trap of being busy often as well.

I love it when people send me calendar invites to hang out because then I don’t have to dedicate mental effort towards remembering - it slots into my existing flow of checking my work calendar. If I have a Friday night open, I dream of spending it doing something awesome instead of just chilling at home playing Mario Kart. All my friends are curing cancer or raising a series A or starting jobs at Deepmind and I feel like if I just worked harder, I too could achieve those successes.

I’ve come to identify the split between Micro vs. Macro-busy. Micro busy is what I’ve described so far — packed calendar, optimizing for optionality, day-to-day hyperactivity and mental clutter. Macro busy is having lots of things I want to do in general with no set timeline but I still feel like I have to many things I want to do (in life) and so little time to do them. The moments feel less busy but the mind still is, potentially generating stress but on more of a quarterly than weekly basis.

The real problem is all the mind clutter that builds up from constantly being micro-busy. It feels tougher to be constantly working, doing 1 thing after another all in the same day than carving out time to get one most important thing done in a time period.

Even if the trap is common, it’s hard to recognize in the moment. Sacrificing eating, sleeping, hanging out with friends and exercising to work more may seem worth it if you actually get work done. But often the opposite happens — you waste more time because each unit of effort produces less output because forgoing restful activities depletes mental energy.

Being busy also helps avoid the question “What am I here for/what do I want?”. Common answers when getting to the root of it include love, happiness, and safety but common surface answers involve money and clout. What really hurts is when the day-to-day tasks don’t line up with what you want long-term or, even worse, distract you from thinking about what you really want. If you don’t know where you’re going you can’t get there.

In my head, being busy gets you to the surface goals of what you want/think you want because of mimetic desires. Being productive is making progress towards what you actually want.

With respect to how I treat my friends, I’m trying to be less “Sounds cool let me know who’s coming” and more “yeah I’m down how’s Friday at 6”. Less “I’m too busy right now” more “yeah I’ll make time for that”.

I think a lot of time could be freed up by plotting it with more intention. Splitting up tasks by day and location seems like the way to go for this. Ex.

Avoiding falling into mimetic desires with constant self-reflection and journaling is also something that I’m working on. I’m not super set on my identity yet and want to explore but at the same time have certain things (and people) I want to/should dive deeper into that I feel are core values.

But working with more intention and questioning what I’m working towards is where I’m starting to avoid feeling less “busy” all the time.

* Special thanks to Kasra, Jacky, Justin, and Amir for reading early drafts of this post.

** If you liked this post and want me to write more, consider buying me a coffee ☕️

*** Some related thoughts from Jacky that I couldn’t quite figure out how to fit in but are important to note: