Why Busyness Isn’t Good Business

Tim Maurer asks 12 thought leaders for techniques to stop the cycle of “busyness.”

It’s old news that we’re busy and that we wear our busyness as a badge of honor. But a new study found that Americans, in particular, are actually buying it. Specifically, the study concluded that Americans who always say they’re “busy” are actually seen as more important. Unfortunately, it’s all a charade.


Numerous studies have shown that busyness isn’t actually good business, and here’s the big reason why: It makes us less productive. We’re all susceptible to it, but If I’m saying to myself (and I have), “Woo, I’m busy; really busy,” I’m likely being distracted from the most important, most productive work that I could be doing. I may feel like I’m doing more, but the net result is actually less. And it often feels like it.

But not everyone wears busyness as a status symbol. In response to the research and their own well-informed gut feelings, many are finding enjoyment in more productive work at a less busy pace. I wanted to know how these people recognize when they’re devolving into busyness and what they do to stop the downward spiral, so I asked 12 thought leaders who’ve inspired me two simple questions:

  • How do you know when you’ve gotten too busy?
  • What is a technique that you use to “unbusy” yourself?

Here’s what they had to say:

Chris Guillebeau, Art of Non-Conformity blogger, Side Hustle School podcaster and author of Born For This, knows he’s too busy when:


I don’t mind working hard and taking on lots of projects–in fact, I wouldn’t have it any other way—but when I have no time to think, then I feel too busy.

He unbusys himself by:

It can be hard to dig myself out of a busyness tunnel. However, one tactic I use is to look through my upcoming calendar and cancel anything that doesn’t seem essential. It’s likely I’ll still have a number of commitments to see through, but even a little relief can help to restore order.

Laura Vanderkamtime management guru and bestselling author of I Know How She Does It, knows she’s too busy when:

You find yourself dreading lots of tasks on your calendar or you don’t have the energy for things you normally like to do. And if you have a lot of activities in your life that you feel like you’d pay good money to offload—that’s probably a sign too!

She unbusys herself by:

Sometimes our calendars need a radical makeover. People had been talking about decluttering for years, but Marie Kondo changed the conversation by flipping it from getting rid of stuff you don’t like to only keeping stuff that “sparks joy.” This is an interesting thought for a schedule. What would it be like to only have activities in your life that “sparked joy?” It’s probably unworkable in practice, but it’s a goal to keep in mind as you evaluate your schedule.

Jon Acuffcareer expert and author of the book Do Over, knows he’s too busy when:

My eyelid starts to twitch from the raw amounts of caffeine I’m using and coffee no longer touches the tiredness. My inbox is also a canary in the coal mine. When it’s out of control, I usually am too.

He unbusys himself by:

I exercise. It’s hard to multitask when you’re running or swimming. I also turn my phone off. It’s a distraction buffet.  

Ryan Carson, CEO and Co-Founder of Treehouse and Naive Optimist blogger, knows he’s too busy when:

My day has started and I haven’t taken time to write down my 5-6 high-priority to-dos.

He unbusys himself by:

Put down my phone, close my laptop and pull out my daily written to-do list and re-center myself.

Jean Chatzky, Financial Editor of NBC’s TODAY Show and co-author of the new book AgeProof, knows she’s too busy when:

My perceived level of stress is on the rise. You can feel it physically (headaches, stomachaches, backaches) but your sleep often suffers as a result and you’re unable to focus as well as normal.   As we write in AgeProof, you can’t deep breathe away this type of stress, you have to attack it at its source.

She unbusys herself by:

I slow myself down. That doesn’t exactly move things off my plate, but it does make sure that I do them correctly the first time which means I don’t have to re-do them.

Ryder Carroll, digital product designer and inventor of the Bullet Journal, knows he’s too busy when:

You stop appreciating what you’ve achieved. If you can’t take a moment to enjoy the fruit of your labor, then what’s the point?!

He unbusys himself by:

Marking the occasion. Be it a dinner with friends, or a better cup of coffee, celebrate your accomplishments. It’s not only about patting yourself on the back, it’s about having a moment of closure to catch your breath and regroup. It’s a critical pause that allows you to take a step back to get perspective and reconnect with your purpose. If your heart is in it, then your mind will follow. Working intelligently is not about being busy, it’s about being productive.

Carl RichardsNew York Times Sketch Guypodcaster and author of The One-Page Financial Plan, knows he’s too busy when:

It’s a feeling, and the key (for me) is learning to notice it instead of drifting through life letting IT dictate how you live and interact with the people around you.

Some clues for me are feeling rushed, holding my breathe a little bit while completing tasks, impatience with people I love, faultfinding with others’ work, and a sense of self-centeredness or self-importance.

He unbusys himself by:

First test: Go hang out with a two- or three-year-old. If you find yourself rushed, you fail.

Second test: Are you responding to “How are you?” using either “So busy!” or “Busy man…but it’s better than the alternative”? Another fail.

Solutions: First, acknowledge you failed the test—you’re either too busy, or acting too busy. Second, start paying attention, and finally, follow your breath.

Jonathan Fields, inspirational blogger, speaker and author of How to Live a Good Life, knows he’s too busy when:

Busyness, alone, isn’t the problem. The loss of intentionality—being “reactively busy”—is. Manically crossing off to-dos without regard to who put them on your list and whether they matter to you is when things fall apart. What’s the big tell? If you find yourself at the end of a breathlessly packed day, having accomplished very little that truly mattered to you, it’s time for an intervention.

He unbusys himself by:

It starts with awareness. You can’t choose differently until you become aware of what you’re doing in the moment. Set “awareness triggers” on your mobile device to vibrate in a distinct pattern and let you know it is time to pause for a moment, consider what you’re working on and whether you’re investing your energy in something with intention and purpose, or simply defaulting to the compounding agendas of others.

Michael Kitces, educator to the most educated financial planners and the prolific publisher of the Nerd’s Eye View blog, is often asked how he does it all. He knows he’s too busy when:

You find you don’t have the time to spend with friends. Or with your spouse and children. Or when you don’t have time to take a vacation. Or when you just feel exhausted from running too hard for too long.

He unbusys himself by:

Saying “no” more often. Greg McKeown’s Essentialism makes this point incredibly well. As I wrote on the blog, most of us get stuck thinking that we have to accept every opportunity that comes our way, and over-busy ourselves. It’s entirely a mental challenge we inflict upon ourselves. Which I say as someone who’s heavily self-inflicted this many times over the years.

Manisha Thakor, my colleague and Director of Wealth Strategies for Women at The BAM Alliance, author and podcaster, knows she’s too busy when:

An additional piece of interesting work lands on my plate and instead of being excited for the opportunity I feel my whole body tensing up.

She unbusys herself by:

I either do a 20-minute, high-intensity cardio workout (alternating 60 seconds of all-out effort with 60 seconds of recovery) when I can or I will take 20 very looong, slow deep breaths. Both have the physiological effect of “rebooting” me.

Michael Hyatt, one of the country’s most sought after top leadership gurus and the co-author of Living Forwardknows he’s too busy when:

You look at your calendar and feel dread.

He unbusys himself by:

First, triage your calendar. Then, learn to say No with grace. If you can’t start saying No, you will end up right where you are now.

Michael Evans, long-time commodities trader and most recently the founder of wealth management firm Cogent Advisor, knows he’s too busy when:

No matter what entrepreneurs like me are doing, we can easily be distracted by something else, leading us to not be fully present no matter where we are or who they’re with. When an opportunity does come along, when something big and exciting could be launched or decided, we’re not conscious enough of the opportunity to take advantage.

He unbusys himself by:

Avoiding the “too-busy” trap. I take scheduled free days where I do no work-related thinking or activities for 24 hours to completely detach myself from my business. No emails, no reading and no talking to others about work. While counterintuitive, it’s so rejuvenating to return energized, creative and present.

The most convincing proof that these thought leaders are doing what they wrote? All of these apparently busy people had time to answer my two questions within several hours of my asking them.

How might your life and work look different if you followed the footsteps of these wise men and women who’ve found joy in rejecting busyness as a badge of honor?

This commentary originally appeared March 11 on Forbes.com

image courtesy of Flickr.com

By clicking on any of the links above, you acknowledge that they are solely for your convenience, and do not necessarily imply any affiliations, sponsorships, endorsements or representations whatsoever by us regarding third-party Web sites. We are not responsible for the content, availability or privacy policies of these sites, and shall not be responsible or liable for any information, opinions, advice, products or services available on or through them.

The opinions expressed by featured authors are their own and may not accurately reflect those of the BAM ALLIANCE. This article is for general information only and is not intended to serve as specific financial, accounting or tax advice.

© 2017, The BAM ALLIANCE