Hacker News new | comments | show | ask | jobs | submit login
Busy to Death (barryoreilly.com)
245 points by Tomte 80 days ago | hide | past | web | 69 comments | favorite



Looking busy can sometimes be a defense mechanism for protecting your own space and peace of mind. When your cow-orkers, friends and family see you Very Busy, they'll be less likely to interrupt you all the time with irrelevant bullshit.

In fact, this works extremely well, because people usually respect the fact that someone is working. On the other hand, when they see you not working, they think it gives them the right to acquire your time.

Sure, a socially savvy person could probably handle all of this by simply talking to others and asserting the boundaries. But for the rest of us, this simple trick of looking busy can help reduce the amount of human interaction to a remotely healthy level (and for many people, myself included, even the act of assertive rejection is hugely mentally taxing).


> On the other hand, when they see you not working, they think it gives them the right to acquire your time

Sure, for close people, but your friends will stop talking to you if you do not have time for them.

I remember reading that a good technique could be to organize a meetup (a movie, a bbq, a dinner, drinks, ...) with all your friends once a week (or once every other week or ...)

This way your friends know when they can get in touch with you, you also see all of them at the same time and they can meet each other.


Or just spend time with your friends. It's not about "you take up too much of my time" because then they wouldn't be friends, it's more about "you are expecting my time RIGHT NOW".


Get out pen and paper instead of looking idly into space. It helps organize your thoughts and also makes you look occupied.


In some companies you need to keep up appearances and look like you're busy all the time.


I am often bemused how people actually end up being so busy. At times, I have felt insecure about my "free time" — sort of how I might be running behind people who are constantly occupied. But, taking a closer look, you can see how a lot of work that busy people do is something that can be reduced, optimised, and even completely done away with. Checking emails, and reports, taking calls that need not be taken, endlessly digressing in meetings, and sometimes, even more obvious, like, squandering time in checking HN, Reddit, and Facebook.

The latter isn't so harmful in moderate amounts but I have people who spend their entire workday talking and checking FB, finishing their work only late at night — being "too busy and hard-working".

I think our society needs to learn that having no free-time is pernicious, but more importantly, unnecessary. There are multitudes of ways in which the work can be optimised with a little effort.


Work less, do more.

But this SMBC explains perfectly why many of us try to stay constantly occupied http://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/2011-04-25


I think the last problem is commonly called "procrastination" and different from workaholism & doing busywork like creating needless meetings, reports, etc.


True, it's different. My point was people could be achieving little during the daytime and feel compelled to work during the night and hence, be very busy. The work schedule might look like 12 hours/day but in actual terms, the real work only occupied 3-4 hours.


Yesterday at 6:00PM I realized I had no pressing business or personal things to get done but it felt very odd trying to decide what to do with that time. It almost felt like wasted time if I didn't do something productive with it.


Yes they are busy. Busy creating free content for their friends on facebook to consume.

Today's generations do not know of the backbreaking work to develop the land and survive that our ancestors were faced with for nearly all of human history. Before animals were replaced with technology, owning them was considered quite a capital investment.

Today poeple sit in an air conditioned room and order in and consider that they "work hard". Maybe some do, intellectually, but most have it very easy.


> Thinking is an activity too—don’t undervalue it. Make time and space for it in your daily work schedule.

This is why I find it impossible to work effectively in open-plan offices. I'm often looking off in to space, thinking. But I feel compelled to make clickety-clack noises on a keyboard, continuously and unproductively, lest people think I'm not working.


> But I feel compelled to make clickety-clack noises on a keyboard, continuously and unproductively, lest people think I'm not working.

Easier said than done, but some unsolicited suggestions:

1) Acquire the self confidence that your results will speak for themselves, appearances be damned. 2) Realize your coworkers also value thinking, and recognize it properly. 3) Realize your coworkers are probably too busy worrying about their own appearances. 4) Any busybodies not too busy worrying about their own appearances can see through your unproductive busywork anyways ;) 5) Consider journaling / take stream-of-concious notes / mind-mapping. Might slow your thinking down some, but might compensate for memory some too.


> 5) Consider journaling / take stream-of-concious notes / mind-mapping. Might slow your thinking down some, but might compensate for memory some too.

I found myself unable to focus on thinking in the office, when there are other people present. I learned to compensate for that by doing my thinking in writing - I just start dumping my thoughts and talking to myself through my text editor. It feels a bit slower, but it does wonders for concentration and for short-term memory.


Is a text editor more effective for you than pen and paper?

I like a text editor because I can type faster than I can write, but something about writing on a paper works better for me.


Pen and paper can reflect my thinking better, but I'm an order of magnitude faster with a text editor than with handwriting - and the benefits of keeping flow and writing at the speed of thought more than compensate for lesser expressive power.


I've also found text editors way easier to edit with - my thought process jumps all over the place, simple things like the ability to insert are a killer feature.

That said, I've recently started to go back to killing trees for things like daily checklists, as a physical reminder of stuff - and more "diagram" style doodling - all packaged into a three ring binder. At some point I plan to grab myself a document scanner so I can bulk archive my loose notes for convenience...


Same, exactly.


This is great advice for so many things in life. In particular 1-4 is the advice I always give to people who start lifting weights at a gym but it applies to basically every task in life.


This is exactly why some people look busy - to make time and space for thinking by projecting a "I'm busy - don't interrupt me" shield around themselves. I know I'm guilty of doing that quite a lot - some people are focus magnets, i.e. they have a supernatural skill of sensing when you're trying to think, so that they can come and interrupt you with bullshit requests.


And here I am trying not to look pissed off at everyone around me because they're sitting there doing little to no work, talking, and making noises.


I'm working in a small office with 4 to 5 developers. I actually enjoy the company and don't mind the occasional phone call or chat. Sometimes I can overhear another conversation and add my 5 cents to it, which I believe to be valuable.

We also use slack and 'idle-ping' other team members first and keep conversations in slack if possible. This works quite well, too.

Recently we had an intern, which had a very annoying tic: While listening to headphones he now and then started to sing/whistle/hiss along, quietly but audible. It's strange and a personality thing, but it took quite a few days until I snapped and told him to stop. It also started again after a couple of days and I had to tell him again.

There a two things to note: For some people it takes a lot to complain about something and for some people it takes a lot to change a habit. In a large office this can be problematic.


Open office plans are great till they aren't, and then fixing them is difficult to impossible. They are bulwarks of busywork, the enemies of deep thought, the land where every coworker gets to put their two cents in and believe it was helpful.


> Recently we had an intern, which had a very annoying tic: While listening to headphones he now and then started to sing/whistle/hiss along, quietly but audible. It's strange and a personality thing, but it took quite a few days until I snapped and told him to stop. It also started again after a couple of days and I had to tell him again.

I shall confess that I'm guilty of this, too. It helps, though, that everyone in our open-plan office has good headphones, so usually not too many people notice.

(And yes, I realize the bizarreness of this entire situation.)


You should install a covert clickety-clack noise maker in your keyboard, or just under your desk.


Nah, just bring a Model M to the office. Everyone will hate you, but a couple of words an hour will secure their belief in your productivity.


By doing that you are only encouraging the "look busy" behavior in others. Please don't.

The world does not need yet another million SLOC. We need to think a lot and type little.


This is why I encouraged my team to go on periodic walks throughout the day. I've always found that thinking can be easier when you move your body a little bit and getting out into the sunshine can improve your mood and cognitive abilities. If you can type at least 60wpm, as any professional dev should be able to do, the sitting at your desk part is just data entry and only needs to be done for a fraction of your day.

Getting organizational buy in, though, was a lot harder. At review time, when we were measuring employees against each other (don't get me started on the stupidity of stack ranking, but that was the system we had to follow), other managers would try to use it against my team saying that they're always away from they're desks and trying to compare them against their own team's long hours and heroic firefighting of production issues. It took me about 18 months of convincing before I got our directors to realize that my team was producing just as much functionality, with much more complexity, and doing it while seeing a fraction of the production issues that other teams saw. I had to get testimonials from our support team along the lines of, "we don't answer many questions about their stuff, it just works."

By the time I'd left, I'd just started to get through that busy isn't a virtue and hard work is only a good thing if it can't be avoided. Time spent reflecting is crucial to doing the least work necessary. Skipping that time will only create the appearance of productivity.


walks are helpful for that, but then you can't do that too much for the same reason you can't sit and stare.


You could write down what you're thinking while you're thinking it. I usually use a google doc to organize my thoughts. It frees up active memory to get your thoughts out of your head and onto paper where you can see them and no longer fear forgetting them.


>You could write down what you're thinking while you're thinking it.

That would be a solution to a non-problem ("looking busy").


It's a good one, too.

I use Emacs for that, but because I use Emacs for almost anything and have a rather low font size set, cow-orkers doing casual screen glancing can't even tell if I'm coding, working through TODOs, requirement docs, or if I'm IRCing or reading my mail.


I need to make marks on paper while thinking through things - I often use a mind map so the outcome of a session might be a single side of A4 printing paper with a diagram on it but that could be the basic plan for a year's teaching on a course.


It clearly is a problem that the grandparent feels the need to solve. Often it's worth making small changes that improve your own life even if those changes are inherently throwaway.


>> Thinking is an activity too—don’t undervalue it. Make time and space for it in your daily work schedule. >This is why I find it impossible to work effectively in open-plan offices.

That, and the fact that open-plan offices are, in my experience, a noise hell. There's always seperate 2-3 conversations happening in the room, some of them about actual work, but disturbing 20 people nonetheless.


I love when CEOs talk about how they set aside dedicated time for this, Jason Fried comes to mind.


Yes, and how important it is that they play golf with the other C-Levels during the working week.

Somehow I don't feel the same rules are going to get applied to the rest of us.


In jobs where I feel sure I'm doing my job well, I overtly show when I'm not busy. Walking around, playing video games, chatting, even working on my own business (with boss's permission) etc. I see other people worriedly noticing when the boss is coming or being afraid that the guard will notice they often turn up late in the morning. But it doesn't bother me at all. I'm doing what I was hired to do and there's no need to make a show of working. Sometimes coworkers see me on the computer and say "you're working hard" but I laugh and say "no, I've been pissing around all day, I'm really lazy". Of course this does depend on the job - sometime you are hired to make full use of your time, not just get things finished.

However, I have worked in places where I always felt I wasn't performing well enough. Stayed at my desk doing "things" as fast as I could and still being behind on deadlines, a couple of times by making big mistakes that meant weeks of work turned out to be useless. I'd go home drained and stressed and still not be refreshed enough to think clearly again the next morning.


Being lazy is a good personality trait to have if you are a developer, as long as you channel your laziness to be more efficient and get more done in less time. This frees up time you can spend thinking, relaxing, or reading/learning about stuff not directly related to the immediate task at hand. Over the long term you will learn more, stress less, produce fewer bugs, etc.

The people I value the most as co-workers, who have the most diverse skillset, and who are able to tackle the most complex problems, are exactly the people who are the least 'busy', who spend the least amount talking, typing, going to meetings, don't complaining how busy they are, how many hours they've worked, etc.


That's not being lazy. That's being proactive in improving your productivity. This is the opposite of lazy.


man perl | grep -iA 1 laziness

:)


Thats what i call myself precrastiation, the act of doing now to laze later.


I work at a big company where my manager is always 100% booked in meetings all day, and so are all the people he has to interact with. I never talk with him except for quick slack questions. Meanwhile we are finally pushing the biggest release ever of one of our apps to the app store this week after working for more than a year on our part, yet the next big release is supposed to be code complete next week already. I took one day off Friday and paid for it by having work on my day off today due to yet another problem at the last minute. Yet executives expect arbitrary dates for things without regard for how much pain it costs. Every release is filled with last minute problems fixed in a hurry to meet iron clad schedules. This isn't sustainable.


I relate to your comment a lot. My boss is completely unavailable except for a brief 1:1 meeting every other week. We are constantly given arbitrary, yet impossible deadlines to meet. Then the objectives change mid-stream and have to start over... It seems totally toxic and I'm already looking for another job. I'm totally burnt out of working like this.


Good luck. I don't think I have ever in my life worked for a single company where management was not fully booked in back-to-back meetings for 10 hours each day. What you've described is standard and normal, and something you will find in most companies. The grass is not greener...


Some would say "perpetually busy management is bad management", and I'd agree.


Another aspect to this is that many people (hand sheepishly up) allow other people to determine their priorities both in work and life.

It's much easier to react to external pressure by giving way than it is to pursue internally set goals while resisting external pressure.


Yeah, but long term, living that way is hard as hell. I've made that mistake quite a few times, and digging myself out is painful, every time.


Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life.


At my first junior gig as a programmer ( I was still a student ), a co-worker learned me this :

"If you don't have the time to help others, you are not doing your job right".

Which he learned from a senior in his internship.


… or your employer is unwilling to setup an environment in which you can do your job well. This is usually an excellent sign that you should find a more competent employer.


"If you don't have the time to help others, you are not doing your job right".

That's a great attitude especially once you get more senior in experience. I don't like people asking trivial stuff they could have looked up on StackOverflow in 5 minutes and let them know that but otherwise I am always open for questions.


Once a guy chose not to go to office, instead he went to Starbucks -- so he could finish an important document (not some side project, but the kind of document he was paid to write). True story.


That reminds me of my second job in the industry. My boss was very chatty and would keep me on the phone for hours every day if I let him, so I kept making up things so I could work without interruption. Funny thing, he was extremely lonely, had no life and loved to talk about mine, so I could tell him "my girlfriend is angry at me, it's really bad, I need to take care of it right now." I'd hang up, code for a few hours, and then call him back and make up a story about the fight I had with my girlfriend. That worked much better than telling him I needed some time to, you know, do all the stuff we talked about on the phone all day.


I used to do that to write important blocks of code when I needed a few hours when no one would interrupt. This was before I had a cell phone and before coffee shops sold wifi with a side of coffee. ;-)


I've done this. Leave the (open floor plan) office early and go to the library around the corner to get real work done.


I've had to do this a lot. It's kind of fun to skip work to get work done, but it also annoys me because it makes it apparent that you can't get useful work done at work, and that makes me feel useless when I do go to work.


The real benefit of open floor plans, increased business for starbucks.


In professions where you get paid by the hour (e.g., contractors, lawyers, etc.) being busy is a proxy for making more money. So when people say, "I've been swamped," it's a polite way of them saying "I'm making bank."


>In professions where you get paid by the hour (e.g., contractors, lawyers, etc.) being busy is a proxy for making more money.

On the other hand, in blue collar and McJobs, it's usually the opposite.


A lot of McJobs I've had nearly require busyness. If the boss sees you chatting with coworkers - it doesn't matter if the customer just left and it has been 2 minutes - You get told that there is plenty to do. If you can't find things, clean.

Of course, it has nothing to do with how much money is being made. Many don't do this because a lot of it feels like busywork, but it is what it is.


Related: "In Praise of Idleness" https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14676435


7 Habits of Highly Effective People goes into this in depth with its quandrant system of time management:

q1: important and urgent q2: important and not urgent - the focus of the article q3: unimportant and urgent q4: unimportant and not urgent i.e. video games


Many interruptions are q3 - unimportant (to my goals) and urgent (to the person interrupting)


This goes against the 'execution matters' mantra that I subscribe to.


This went a long way to make a Vanilla Ice joke.


I don't see how you can go from 'Busy to death' and segue into a 'Vanilla Ice the Rapper' joke. Care to enlighten us? Alright stop, collaborate and listen...


The article does make a Vanilla Ice joke, if you read carefully.


The anecdote at the beginning utterly fails to convey anything meaningful.




Applications are open for YC Winter 2018

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | DMCA | Apply to YC | Contact

Search: