Take a look around: everyone is multitasking. We’re doing more than we’ve ever done, attempting to fill every interstitial zone with more work. Every downtown scene is the same: heads tilted downward, faces lost in glowing screens, technology turning people into zombies.
We live in a busy world, one in which our value is often measured in productivity, efficiency, work rate, output, yield, GTD—the rat race. We are inundated with meetings and spreadsheets and status updates and rush-hour traffic and tweets and conference calls and travel time and text messages and reports and voicemails and multitasking and all the trappings of a busy life. Go, go, go. Busy, busy, busy.
Americans are working more hours than ever, but we are actually earning less. Busy has become the new norm. If you’re not busy, especially in today’s workplace, you’re often thought of as lazy, unproductive, inefficient—a waste of space.
For me, busy is a curse word. I grimace whenever someone accuses me of being busy: my facial features contort, and I writhe in mock pain. I respond to this accusation the same way each time: ”I’m not busy, I’m focused.”
Henry David Thoreau said, “It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?” If I were to append his quandary, I’d say, “It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we focused on?”
There is a vast difference between being busy and being focused. The former involves the typical tropes of productivity: anything to keep our hands moving, to keep going, to keep the conveyer belt in motion. It is no coincidence we refer to mundane tasks as “busywork.” Busywork works well for factories, robots, and fascism, but not so great for anyone who’s attempting to do something worthwhile with their waking hours.
Being focused, on the other hand, involves attention, awareness, and intentionality. People sometimes mistake my focused time for busyness because complete focus apes many of the same surface characteristics as busy: namely, the majority of my time is occupied.
The difference, then, is I don’t commit to a lot of things, but the tasks and people I commit to receive my full attention. Being focused doesn’t allow me to get as much accomplished as being busy; thus, the total number of tasks I complete has gone down over the years, although the significance of each undertaking has gone up—way up. This year I’ll do only a few things—publish a book, embark on a tour, teach a writing class—but those efforts will receive all of me.
This might not look good on a pie chart next to everyone who’s tallying their productivity metrics, but it certainly feels better than being busy just for the sake of being busy.
Sure, sometimes I slip; sometimes I fall back into the busy trap that has engulfed our culture. When I do, I make an effort to notice my slip-up, and then I course-correct until I’m once again focused on only the worthwhile aspects of life. It’s a constant battle, but it’s one worth fighting.
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