Trey McKinney, Staff Writer

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an article about the effort required to perform at the highest level. The point of the piece was that getting really good at a specific task requires a lot of time. And I mean a lot (somewhere to the tune of 10,000 hours).  Consequently, we can assume that if real excellence or success is your goal, then you better be prepared to put in a lot of time and effort to achieve it.

This in itself is not a poor attitude to adopt. If we really want to excel, we should be willing to work hard for it. It’s a notion that many of us embrace. Work ethic and discipline are virtues that we value, even celebrate. But as with anything, there are drawbacks, and for many of us the preoccupation with constant activity can be detrimental to our productivity and to our happiness. 

Busy, Busy, Busy

Time, in many respects, is the most valuable resource we have. It cannot be replenished or replaced. Yet we often find ourselves spending it on activities that add little value to our lives.

I should preface this by noting that this is not targeted at the working mom with three kids, or the woman burning the midnight oil in order to make partner, or the married couple spending countless hours trying to get their business off the ground. For many people, 50, 60, or 70 hour work weeks are what is required in order to keep things afloat, or to get a business up and running. That is the kind of work we should all strive to do, because it has real meaning. Likewise, there are many people who have full, active lives, enjoying the pace and activity brought on by a heavy schedule.

However, there are millions of people who do not fit this mold, whose planners and calendars are full, well, just for the sake of being full.  As Tim Krieder writes in a piece for the New York Times:

“[It] isn’t generally people pulling back to back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily…They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.”

The Washington Post’s Brigid Schulte, in her article “Why Being Busy Makes Us Feel So Good” and related book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, illustrates a similar point. Many of us are locked into incessant cycles of activity, voluntarily taking on jobs and responsibilities that ultimately do little to support our own happiness or well being. And the motivation for doing so does not lie in purpose or interest or passion: it lies in insecurity.

When we think of people who have immense success we often hear of their maniacal work ethic. Whether it is Michael Jordan in sports, Bill Gates in tech, or Paul McCartney in music, tales of their aberrant ascents are often coupled with stories of their drive and commitment to their craft. What we often seem to forget is the singularity of their focus and the deep, authentic interest they have in their chosen pursuits. It is easy to lose yourself in your work when it is engaging, when you are deeply and personally invested in the results, and when the work you are doing truly matters to you.

But these are not the reasons most Americans go to work, nor do they explain the Google Calendars full of not-really-necessary engagements. Most of us, even if we like our jobs, go to work every day because that’s what we need to do to pay the bills. And there is nothing wrong with that. Yet for some of us who are fortunate enough to have options in how to spend the remaining hours of our week, there is a tendency to load up with activities that we neither need nor enjoy.

It has been estimated that Americans take only 51% of their paid leave each year. They leave 429 million days of paid leave on the table. 429 million days. Of paid leave.

There are reasonable objections. “The work still has to be done.” “I don’t want to fall behind.” But one has to wonder if the reason is always so rooted in necessity. 

The fact of the matter is many of us like to be (or to appear to be) busy.  As Schulte writes, “Somewhere around the end of the 20th century, busyness became not just a way of life, but a badge of honor…People compete over being busy; it’s about showing status.” Activity validates us and our existence, demonstrating that our time is of value. But does that external confirmation of our worth really justify the expense?

Look, if you enjoy your life, whether it is full or empty, by all means continue doing what makes you happy. But for many people, it might be good to take a long, hard look in the mirror and determine whether the things that we do are truly for us or our families. Is that extra project, appointment, or venture really for you? Or is it for your image? For the person you would imagine yourself to be? Or maybe just the person you hope other people perceive?


In the end, what we should strive for is not busyness, but productivity. And productivity is much easier to come by when you are happy with what you do. 

It has been empirically shown (see Forbes here and Marketwatch here) that dramatic increases in productivity occur when people are happy. Now it may not be reasonable to expect everyone to have a job that they are in love with, but in the least we should seek out work that we can be happy doing, even with all of the headaches that may come with it. And one way to increase your happiness overall is to focus in on the activities that are truly meaningful to you, and to minimize the distractions . There is no shortage of hacks and techniques to help you become more efficient with your work habits, but no list of tips will do as much for your productivity as a sense of purpose, or in the very least a general sense of contentment.  Addition by subtraction may be just what you need to bring that about.