Scott Hanselman

Personal Productivity: Business vs. busyness vs. laziness

July 14, 2014 Comment on this post [28] Posted in Productivity
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There's an ancient cliché that drives a lot of my thinking about personal productivity. "Excessive busy-ness is a common form of laziness."

Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness. Because when you are busy you can turn your brain off. You’re on the treadmill. The only  intelligence comes in the morning when you make your To Do list and you get rid of all the possible space that could happen in your day. - Elephant Journal, 2008

The Tibetan term lelo, as I understand it, begins to describe this kind of laziness.

Kausidya (Sanskrit; Tibetan Wylie: le lo) is a Buddhist term translated as "laziness" or "spiritual sloth".

Alan Wallace explains that kausidya (lelo in Tibetan) refers to a very specific type of laziness, that is concerned only with virtuous activity. Wallace explains from Wikipedia:

[...] lelo in Tibetan, is often translated as ‘laziness,’ but it is much more specific. If a person is working sixteen hours a day, hellbent on earning a whole lot of money with absolutely no concern for virtue, from a Buddhist perspective you could say that person is subject to lelo. A workaholic is clearly not lazy, but such a person is seen as lelo in the sense of being completely lethargic and slothful with regard to the cultivation of virtue and purification of the mind. Our translation of this term is ‘spiritual sloth,’ which we have taken from the Christian tradition, where it is very comparable to the Buddhist notion.

I'm not saying you're lazy so don't get mad quite yet. I'm saying that using "I'm too busy" as an excuse or a reason to not do something important to you, then you might want to give your situation a closer look. I'm saying that sometimes we are busy with work, but not the kind of work we should be busy with.

Sakyong Mipham states: "Speediness is laziness when we use it as a way to avoid working with our minds."

Of course, there's busy people who are literally on fire and being chased by ninjas, I'll give them a pass. But when someone says "I'm too busy" perhaps they are letting you know they are too important to talk to you, or they are just using it as an excuse to not engage. Often I've said in the past that "I'm busy" when I really mean "I'm not really that into your idea to take the time to think deeply about it."

So when we say "being busy is a form of being lazy" we're saying think about what's important, and think about the work you're doing. Is it moving the ball forward? Is it moving YOUR BALL forward. The Ball that you care about?

I have an hour set aside once a week that's for a meeting. The meeting is with myself. No one else comes to this meeting but me. I think about what I'm doing, where I'm going, and what I need to be working on. I use this meeting to think about the business and busyness of my previous week. I think about what busy work I did that was a waste of time, and try to setup myself up for success in the coming week.

My parents and brother are convinced that I'm too busy to hang out or have lunch. I constantly hear "Well, we didn't want to bother you." I'm never too busy for them. Time can be made. It's amazing how quickly a day of meetings (or a half-day) can be cancelled or moved. Days can be cleared and time can be made.

It's easy to get caught up in the chaos of business. It's fun to play Tetris with your Outlook calendar. It's satisfying to pack those productive meetings in and feel important and urgently needed. It's cathartic to delete email and think that getting rid of that email is moving my life forward, but often it's not. Often I'm just on a treadmill, running to keep up. I know this treadmill and my inertia keeps me going.

The hard work is to consciously step off the treadmill, step away, turn around and look at it. What can be removed? What can be refined? In what ways have we taught our bosses or co-workers how to treat us and our time?

I was in Egypt once and the hosts wanted to take me to the Sphinx, but I didn't want to miss a weekend with my sons. They may have thought me rude, but it was about consciously choosing one priority over another. I knew my time and my priorities and made a conscious choice on how I was going to spend it.

In what way are you buying into the idea of being always busy? What are you doing to find balance?

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About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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July 14, 2014 11:25
I'm not too busy to be first ;)
July 14, 2014 11:45
Fully agree with the complaint of people being lost in "busyness", or always saying "I don't have the time" - what they're really saying is "it's not a priority for me".

I like the idea of the hour meeting with yourself, I may have to start doing that as I tend to drift a bit.

As for busyness itself, I think that can also manifest itself in coding as well, as developers create classes on frameworks on classes and tests upon tests upon frameworks so it looks like they're doing *something* instead of what they should be doing, which is thinking about the business issues / requirements that you're writing the software to solve, and then coding.

Mike K.
July 14, 2014 11:47
Dammit Pete. I had that first post scheduled in as my 1:30. Now I'm going to have to reschedule .. and there are no rooms free. Well that's my whole day pretty much shot to pieces :)
July 14, 2014 12:04
Ouch, touched a nerve there Scott.
Nice one.
July 14, 2014 12:19
Its amazing when someone speaks (or writes) something on your mind that you weren't able to articulate or think in terms of words and statements or not quite sure what it is. Nice post, opened up some of my senses!!
July 14, 2014 12:48
I recognize the busyness, but I also find sometimes this busyness is hard to turn off. I know all the things I'm doing are not always very important, but it's hard to put that into action. Mindfulness techniques help me with that.
July 14, 2014 14:03
I love the idea of a 1 hour meeting with myself. Something I am going to start doing. I find that I am interested in too many things, and rarely get round to any of it. A bit of structure will help.
July 14, 2014 15:01
I agree, it's so easy to add just another project or commitment to the pile that ends up being just more busywork that adds no value.
July 14, 2014 16:16
I'm not spending an hour a week for myself, but I've started taking ten minutes a day with headspace.

I find that I'm already more aware of what's really important and I'm more focused where I need to be as well.
July 14, 2014 17:20
Rands has a similar but slightly different perspective on the topic. It is funny that his post and this post were written to close together.

The tl;dr is that busyness is an addiction and a trick to make your brain think you are being productive.
July 14, 2014 18:18
Maybe I missed it, but by making time for everyone. (my family of course is the most important) what do we do with the excessive interruptions we get. It's one reason I don't like being in the office because everybody thinks they can just come talk to you, and IM doesn't help that much either. Just would like your thoughts on how you handle that.
July 14, 2014 22:55
Scott, how do you manage time between work, personal projects and family time? I'm currently battling management of my time between family, work, home improvement projects, personal coding projects and things like blogging. Of these, family and work are winning which leaves no time for the other projects. Do you just not sleep?
July 15, 2014 3:27
Couldn't agree more.
I know a guy who couldn't free up some time to update his resume because he was too busy looking for a job!
July 15, 2014 12:14
I noticed that if I do repetitive job during working time when I finished day I couldnt even speak with my wife or friends.
To be creative or to find inner concerns you must have free time.
When on weekends have free time I sometimes go for fishing. Its a kind of self psychotherapy for me even if i dont catch a fish.

Thank you for the space to write the comment

July 15, 2014 14:14
I have a weekly meeting with myself in my calendar to plan my weekly priorities.
problem is that when I dial in as chair, no-one else seems to join as participant
July 15, 2014 18:34
Thanks Scott for inspiring us.
July 15, 2014 19:30
I'm in the same struggle as David Zych; I feel like I'd have to become a world champion time manager (or a cyborg) to do everything I want to do in a week.

The rub for me seems to be, that learning something like GTD or Pomodoro, or taking a half-hour out to make and prioritize a task list, are themselves tasks I've got to fit in amongst all the other ones. I don't have time to make time, or some such.

I appreciate the kick in the butt this post seems to provide, Scott, and I wish everybody else peace and productivity. If that's what you want.
July 15, 2014 20:42
Great perspective! I recently sat down and evaluated my priorities. Four months later I gave up a secure long term job to move my family back to my home town. I am so much happier. My family is happier. I recommend following Scott's advice and taking time to evaluate your priorities. Once we are settled in the new home. I have another meeting scheduled for myself.
July 15, 2014 21:14
This is a nice way to connect with self, an hours spent in a week. Great thought for sure
July 16, 2014 2:20
Since we're speaking about Christian tradition, as busy as Jesus was, he always made time to get alone and pray. And he never missed an opportunity to help someone where he was, even if that made him "late".
July 16, 2014 3:03
The meeting you have with yourself, do you call it a "Me-eting"?
July 16, 2014 10:21
I always wonder that god gave everyone irrespective of cast, creed, rich, poor etc., 24 hours a day. No one gets more or less. If we don't own and give it for the right thing then all we will have is hours but not time.
July 16, 2014 12:48
After 3 years working on a particularly dysfunctional software team I coined the phrase "competitive executive exhaustion" to describe a situation where bad decisions are made by leaders who are too busy to lead. Tag along with these aspiring executive types and you will observe how they embrace a punishing work schedule that is ultimately ineffective and damaging to the organization that employs them.

Common traits are flying half way around the world to deliver an obsequious superficial motivational speech to a remote team and yet not having having time to schedule a 1/2 day workshop to resolve a problem that has been hurting a team for months. These same busy executive types will jump at every opportunity to join non project conference calls in order to press the corporate flesh (as a politician would understand it) but the same individuals cannot find 5 minutes in a day to walk around their team and provide spontaneous tactical leadership.

Scott's blog post tells us that "ineffective busyness" has been observed across millennia but my comment leads to the question, why do smart people behave like this? A poor corporate culture is part of the explanation, people can believe that superficial visibility is more important for advancement than quantifiable personal delivery. Another explanation is that weak individuals will mould a job to fit their personal strengths to the detriment of what the job position actually needs, hence a natural performer will decide to travel around giving rah-rah speeches rather than focus on persistent problems. Finally many people question their own success and fear being discovered, busyness and mobility are often a smokescreen to evade situations where their true capabilities can be scrutinized.
July 18, 2014 17:19
Admit it, you've been reading the book Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.

Okay there's a good chance you haven't but what you're saying resonates with that book.
July 18, 2014 20:08
Thanks for the reminder Scott. The key takeaway for me is activity is not the same as virtuous development (or meaningful activity).

Unfortunately we live in this culture of 40-50-65 hour work week for "go getters" like us. So often bosses, business partners, clients (and even spouses) get lose in this false deity.

How many times have I "walked away" from a programming or business problem, instead distracting myself with a workout or time with the kids, only to return significantly more prepared to solve the problem. I think we can all relate to that.

Especially in brain work, time "on the job" is not always translated into valuable output.

Also, tangentially, as you note, it's OK to say "I'm just not that interested in the thing you're trying to involve me in". Obviously one should be diplomatic about it but I think it's refreshing when someone says "Honestly, I'm not as excited about that as you so I'd rather spend my time on this other thing I'm doing."

Good word Scott, cheers!

P.S. Parents: If you have kids and you're not coaching or volunteering in whatever thing they are doing... maybe YOU're "too busy".......
July 19, 2014 3:55
I hope you aren't too busy to help with an issue regarding ELMAH : StackOverflow Question

You have recommended ELMAH so I would appreciate the support.
July 21, 2014 21:46

Can we get some information on this line?

"In what ways have we taught our bosses or co-workers how to treat us and our time?"

I remember Richard Campbell made a comment one time of how he kept co-workers from bothering.

I am curious what the approach is here. Contact time is only 3PM - 5PM unless its critical?
July 24, 2014 11:20
Good stuff, l learn more about Busy-ness in the Tibetan tradition is considered the most extreme form of laziness

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.