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The busy trap (opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com)
258 points by credo on July 1, 2012 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments

How much a job pays has a weak correlation with how much it 'matters'. Growing food matters a lot, growing food doesn't pay that well. HFT pays very well, HFT doesn't matter that much. How much something pays is determined by the whims of the markets. Free market capitalism provides a basic framework to roughly match supply with demand and incentivize people to work. But the 'demand' is determined by whoever has the money.

The problem is, the actors with money don't spend it with the intent to maximize the benefit to society as a whole. They spend it 'selfishly', to maximize their personal interests. There's nothing wrong with that, it's how capitalism works. But if everyone spent their money to benefit society as whole, then there would be an extremely strong correlation between how much a job pays and how much it 'matters'.

I feel that in the long run the markets work just fine and does act to benefit society since people are generally ethical. But it doesn't act to 'maximize' the benefit to society. I mean why did it take warfare for us to take space exploration seriously? And why did the internet start as a military network?

I think capitalism is a pretty decent system. But I wish we did a better job of pushing research and innovation for their own sake. Not as a reactive measure to beat the competition or get an upper-hand militarily. I think nearsightedness on what's best 'now' and 'for ourselves', leads to a lot of work that feels like it doesn't matter.

> if everyone spent their money to benefit society as whole, then there would be an extremely strong correlation between how much a job pays and how much it 'matters'.

if it was possible to determine ex ante what benefits society the most, it wouldn't even be a contest, of course we could all agree to do that, it's almost tautological.

the problem is that in 99% of the cases we don't know. should i pay 50 cents on a banana, or is 1 euro a fair price. will 2 euro maximize aggregate welfare?

and who actually is "society as a whole"? is it just the most people, or should we stratify? is one group better or more worthy than another?

> if it was possible to determine ex ante what benefits society the most, it wouldn't even be a contest, of course we could all agree to do that, it's almost tautological.

The prisoner's dilemma is a simple example of a situation in which cooperation would be the ideal solution for everyone, nonetheless players tend to behave selfishly.

The problem with the current system isn't that people act selfishly i.e. in a way that creates most value for themselves.

The problem is that the selfish actions of some actors(the figurative 1%) count for overwhelmingly more than others. And a lot of actors don't have any say at all(those below the poverty line). In such a system, the selfish 'demands' of most other actors don't matter.

Say on HN, there were a few people (type A) that could instantly give 1,000,000 points to any comment or post and everybody else could give only 1(type B). A post could provide value for 100,000 type Bs and yet some other post that type A liked would always rise to the top. If this were true, HN would be a very boring place to be.

The goal should be to empower all actors to act selfishly - perhaps not equally, but atleast in a 'reasonably' proportionate fashion.

I'm not sure this is generally true.

This holds for rare, luxury goods and limited markets (like housing). But the concentration of wealth in a minority AFAIK doesn't seem to bid up large markets like corn or paper.

Consider the example given by creamyhorror below - the influence of money in the political process.

What if besides having a disproportionately high number of points on HN, you had the power to influence the creators of HN so that a percentage of all the points on HN went to you? Or, what if you had millions of points on HN and were able to convince the makers of HN that you should be able to vote on HN with only 0.5 points per vote?

Yes, because the players do not have complete information. The correct strategy is only obvious to those outside the experiment.

When you extend the concept to society as a whole, we are all players. No one is outside it. That's why I agree with HSO that it's not possible to state absolutely what would best benefit society.

> The correct strategy is only obvious to those outside the experiment.

Wait, are you suggesting that cooperating in the prisoner's dilemma is the correct strategy then? Because in fact defecting is always a best response to any of the opponent's choices, even if you are aware of the rules of the experiment.

He's saying the same thing as you. Basically, it's hard to know what benefits society most at any given. That's the job of historians.

You nailed it. The key problem is 'demand' is determined only by whoever has money. Capitalism works because each person gets a say in what is important and creates value for them. The problem is that if you don't have above a certain amount of money, you don't get much of a say. In the age of immense income inequality, this completely distorts the 'demand' generation aspect of capitalism.

What if we divorced 'demand'(what creates value for each person) from money (payment for value created) and gave all actors an equal right to determine demand irrespective of their ability to pay? We are working on building such a world.

> What if we divorced 'demand'(what creates value for each person) from money (payment for value created) and gave all actors an equal right to determine demand irrespective of their ability to pay?

Demand is already divorced from ability to pay - anyone can "demand" anything. The "problem" is that suppliers don't care about demand. They only care about being paid.

If a million people demand X but are unwilling to pay for it while 10 people demand Y and are willing to pay for it, why am I going to produce X instead of Y?

Divorcing ability to pay doesn't necessarily have to mean nobody pays.

We are already beginning to see the early stages of such a system. All freemium services are in essence an example of such a system and therefore by extension most startups.

Gmail satisfies the demand of millions of customers for an email service but doesn't ask them to pay. This doesn't mean gmail doesn't make gains.

Currently, the primary funder of such services are ad and brand agencies.

What if we lived in a world where any individual could basically play the role that ad/brand agencies play in supporting freemium services today?

> All freemium services are in essence an example of such a system

No, they aren't. They exist because sufficient people pay.

> and therefore by extension most startups.

Do you really think that a significant number of startups are freemium?

> Currently, the primary funder of such services are ad and brand agencies.

Not at all. They're funded by "heavy users" - see dropbox.

Ad supported is not freemium.

You are right. I was describing free - not freemium. Though, technically even freemium is an example of where a large number of people don't pay in the direct exchange. The monetization model divorces payment from the direct beneficiary - that's the key takeaway.

> The monetization model divorces payment from the direct beneficiary - that's the key takeaway.

No. Freemium divorces payment from SOME direct beneficiaries.

However, the total cost, and then some, is paid by other direct beneficiaries. Is your scheme any different?

Note that freemium doesn't always work. For example, a freemium automobile company is unlikely to work. Advertising supported "free to end user" automobiles won't work either.

So, how does your proposed model work? Be sure to explain when it works and when it doesn't. (If you claim that it works for every product/service, you're wrong.)

We have this 'equal right' in the form of one-man-one-vote (democracy), but that doesn't stop the richest actors from exercising great influence over the results overall. In the end, the ability of wealth to buy marketing and power will always exist.

I would like to see inequality reduced, but it seems like the 'right to create equal demand' has been provided already. There's always more work to be done, I guess.

Anyone else think living without goals is the way to go?

For the majority of my life I was very goal oriented and would make sure every hour of the day was filled. Everyday was a todo list. I scheduled the occasional leisure activity but even these were part of some goal such as 'travel to 5 countries in 1 year"

Recently I just decided to give up any goals and any expectations. What I found out was that goals were stressing me out. It made me unhappy. I seeked my identity on some future achievement. It's something I think a lot of entepreneurs experience too... Now I just live life and experience whatever comes my way. I still work towards things but if a friend asks me to skip a workday to catch a movie, I no longer give them the "I'm busy" excuse.


I've tried it both ways. Without goals is fine for a year or three, especially if you've been living "with goals" your whole life... Indeed, it can be very refreshing.

...but then, once you've hung out on the beach enough, or read enough books, or watched enough movies, or built enough fun little programming projects just messing around, you realize that you're not building to anything long-term, and you're only on Earth for a few short decades.

Goals are necessary so that, ten, twenty, thirty years from now, you're doing the things you want to be doing. For example, changing the world for the better, if that's your thing, or contributing to cutting-edge biology, if that's your thing.

I discovered this last year, too, and ended up not setting any goals: http://www.erica.biz/2011/2011-goals/

2011 was a great year. I met my future spouse, bought an RV, and we went traveling together. It went so well that I didn't set any goals for 2012, either.

Now I have a daily list of things to do (how I write that and what's on it is vastly different from most people's--that will probably be my next blog post), but I don't really set over-reaching goals. I don't need to. I know that what I need will show up when I need it--and that provides me a sense of peace I haven't had until recently.

My business is more successful, my blog has more readers, and, most importantly, I am happier without goals.

You know what? I've lived 20+ years without goals or expectations, and actually made a great career while doing it. It was a great time.

And yet, recently, I'm compelled to set myself goals, to live up to expectations, because only ambling around gets old after a while. I suggest that as always in life, the golden path is somewhere in the middle.

> Anyone else think living without goals is the way to go?

Yes, being eternally 'busy' and obsessed with goals is probably the quickest way to turn your life into a vortex of depressing bullshit, well, aside from prison or hard manual labor.

Take it easy, enjoy life and get a few hours of good quality work done most days of the week.

Hard manual labor can be very refreshing and enlightening.

One of my most elightening periods ocurred when I was packing a product at a factory. If you keep your body busy with repetitive and tiring work, your mind can do wonders.

Not forever, certainly, but once you are accustomed to chair gymnastics, a day of tiring physical work after another really puts things in perspective.

I'm a farm-lad, so no stranger to good old-fashioned work :)

I was being flippant in my above comment, and more referring to the back-breaking, soul-devouring variant of 'manual labor', the kind that drives people to drink and ruins the creative spirit.

Otherwise, I do agree, sometimes it's good to do some manual work, put the body on auto-pilot and let the mind wander. Personally I seem to get most of my best thinking time when I'm either walking, scrubbing floors, loading a van, etc...

I always had a sense of urgency (sometimes it creeps through again). It's much less now and I'm more content. I always thought I'd have time to enjoy sunsets, smelling the proverbial flowers once I achieved what I wanted to do. Then one day, in a cliche moment of clarity, it dawned on me that I'll always have something I'd want to achieve: create a hugely successful site, write a bestseller, play music in stadiums. I'll never be satisfied.

So instead, each day, I try to find beauty and contentedness in the world around me. Creating smiles where I go, absorbing late afternoon sun on my skin, etc. That mindshift made me reappreciate the place I've lived in for 16 years. The mountains were suddenly beautiful, the people, etc.

That doesn't mean I still don't have goals. I've just made them realistic, asking myself why I want to achieve that goal. It shouldn't be to fill the "emptiness" that the author talks about. My new years resolution for the year for example is to run a 10km race (getting close!).

You can combine the two as well. I keep high level, amorphous goals, a few specific (usually tactical) goals, but generally don't try and set too many goals. Having flexibility between fuzzy boundaries has served me quite well and I tend to enjoy work and life as a result. Of course, I know people who can't function that way, so it's hardly appropriate to say that it's the one true approach.

Living with less goals has made me happier. I used to have too many difficult unrealistic goals. It just caused a lot of stress and anxiety in my life. It helped to keep some of the goals, but get rid of the deadline I had on those goals. Instead of saying "I need to get this certification in 3 months", my attitude is "I'll study 2-3 hours a week and take it if and when I feel ready". Shooting for smaller, flexible goals makes a big difference.

It's great to have fun, but I find I like to have goals that allow me to focus on what is necessary, and try and de-emphasize those things that are not really necessary.

My current goals include code that will hopefully contribute substantially to the ease with which I can do my job, and to the happiness of our customers.

This is achievable, and a great way to maintain focus.

Having unstructured social time should be one of your goals too!

For me, the point of goals is to get myself in motion. Once I'm going, though, the goals can change or disappear altogether.

Additionally if you are so driven towards goals do you see the opportunities you pass by?

"Dudes, you are running like crazy and pushing empty wheelbarrows around. Why do you do that?"

"Man, we are so busy there is no time to load the damn things!"

"Only in recent history has "working hard" signaled pride rather than shame for lack of talent, finesse, and, mostly, sprezzatura." — Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There have been a bunch of studies recently that show praising kids for being smart or talented, rather than working hard, can cripple their development. So, it hardly surprises me.

Well, but that's hardly a binary choice, is it? You can encourage kids to develop their talents without putting them on a hamster wheel.

This article, particularly the paragraphs "Idleness is not just a vacation ..." and "The goal of the future is full unemployment, so we can play ...", express a similar sentiment to my favourite essay:

Bertrand Russell - In Praise Of Idleness


>if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

Then why are you getting paid for it? Clearly someone cares about it, roughly in proportion to the amount you're getting paid.

Consider these three jobs: making nails for local carpenters, operating machinery in a nail factory, designing machinery for nail factories. Designing machinery for nail factories helps carpenters the most, but feels least helpful.

Surprise surprise, reading children's books is not a good way to estimate the value delivered by people working in various occupations.

Nails have basic utility as they can be used to build homes, structures, bridges, etc.

Now take working at a teenager magazine, something like Seventeen. Really, you are producing a level of writing and entertainment that 14-19yo girls will read, probably paid for by their parents. Most of it will probably be idle thoughts and advice borderlining on turning girls into sluts who buy too much make-up. Really, your job is to provide a way to hide advertisements.

Not very valuable if you take a step back and look at all of humanity.

Economic value is whatever people want.

True. My point was that just because something has economic value in today's system, doesn't mean it has value objectively, if there is such a thing.

You're being incredibly bias here. You see 17 Magazine and scoff and teenaged girls see whatever it is you like and scoff. We each find value in the things we find value in and it's not our place to judge other people's choices.

This is a cop-out. We all "value" trivial things, and in the end, one person's trivial interests aren't any better or worse than another's. But we absolutely can judge interests as being in the class of trivial or not. The usual stuff you find in 17 magazine is easily categorized as trivial. To argue against this based on a "relative" argument is copping out of making the obvious judgement.

I think you hit the nail on the head (to borrow a theme from further up the thread) - I don't think there is such a thing as objective value.

Self-imposed busy-ness? Yep.

Great articles like this are the reason I pay up for the NYT.

I was a little embarrassed how the article reflected much of my own life style. I am visiting my parents and I was talking with my Dad earlier this morning about my working more than I need to and my desire to cut back even more from consulting to have extra time for my writing and outdoor activities. I also realized that I brag about being "busy" - in an odd way wearing busy-ness as a badge of honor.

Yes, but there is such a thing has ennui. It is better to dispel ennui by taking up projects voluntarily than doing only minimum work and then becoming listless and depressed.

I understand that the article is trying to get us to think about busyness for busyness' sake, but in a way, when water,food and shelter are taken care of, you don't REALLY need to do anything else. But then what do you do for the rest of your life?

I would say keep busy, take a little stress, but when it becomes bad for you health and the people around you, back off. You'll be dead soon, don't waste it.

"But then what do you do for the rest of your life?"

I think this is the question you're forced to answer with earnest when you stop trying to be busy for busyness sakes. It might be by being too busy, we don't stop and appreciate the present moment, and everything we already have.

I've recently noticed the contrary in my life : I'm not busy.

I have way too much time to think (and to think way too much). I don't meet that much people, and when I talk to my friends or new encounters I don't have much to say. And I feel like I'm wasting my time not moving forward with my life (personal and professional).

I even googled "How to get busy".

I know it can be a trap, but being busy is GOOD. Meet people, do things, learn things, gain experience, be active.

Also you'll become someone more like-able. Someone who is busy IS attractive (socially and romantically).

But are you going to be busy and fill your life with activities to attract and impress others?

Or do things you actually enjoy doing, without caring much for the end result? I think the latter is healthy, but the former is not. Busyness caused by doing things for egotistical reasons, or because everyone else is doing it wears you out.

Does it really matter if I start getting busy just to impress other and end up finding things I like and gaining experience for myself?

Where are you? Is it somewhere you are not really needed?

Is there opportunity to develop your job description to take on needed roles that are not filled?

If the answer is no, then maybe you should consider moving on.

I've taken the summer off, and I can definitely see what this writer means. I have a number of habits and reflexes left over (e.g.: frequent checking of email, compulsive checking of news sites and social media) that may have had some use, but mainly sustained a feeling of busyness.

No idea how I'm going to prevent getting re-hooked in the fall, but I'm definitely going to prune that back while I'm on vacation.

I've always felt that we should brag about efficiency, instead of talking about being busy. A blog post from a few months ago: http://fayezmoh.tumblr.com/post/21470081227/efficiency-matte...

Idleness is just as much a tray as busyness. You can spend weeks "not seeing people I know, remembering stink bugs and the stars, and reading"... and then one morning you wake up and realise you have no friends and nothing to live for.

This article will make experienced heads nod.

This article will make no sense to inexperienced heads who think they can force their will on anything.

Great article. It reminded me of the Mexican Fisherman story: http://www.protolink.com/MexicanFisherman.html

I value my time above anything else. I always have spare capacity. When an opportunity comes up, I'm free to grab hold.

The article reminded me of a brilliant passage from one of Schopenhauer's essays ("On the Vanity of Existence", Section 5):

Life presents itself first and foremost as a task: the task of maintaining itself, de gagner sa vie. If this task is accomplished, what has been gained is a burden, and there then appears a second task: that of doing something with it so as to ward off boredom, which hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey. Thus the first task is to gain something and the second to become unconscious of what has been gained, which is otherwise a burden. (..) For if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfil and satisfy us.

This is my new favorite article, or opinion piece ever. I actually wrote something similar recently and submitted discussing my goal of having nothing but free time which falls inline with this very much http://tortillasinbed.com/post/26229642463/free-time-is-my-g....

This obsessiveness with appearing as you are always busy is kind of sad. I think it's largely an age related thing. People in their 20's and 30's equate their worth, or value with how much stuff they are doing or making. I'd love to talk to an old friend and ask them what they're and have them say, 'nothing much, just hanging out'. Thats usually my response.

I am very busy and I like being busy; life is short and there is way too much cool stuff to do. But, at the same time, I try to not use it as an excuse, and I get a little annoyed when people use it that way.

That's not the point. Are you too busy to read the whole post?

I gave up about halfway - it was too preachy.

This is the Ted Rall essay he referenced at the end.


Hmm, I think being busy is great - progress is survival, after all, and there's no progress without a lot of work.

But of course, if you're busy just for the sake of being busy, you'll feel worn out and tired all the time. There are people who enjoy being busy with anything, though, and being busy working on something you're passionate about is probably the best feeling in the world :-).

"Don't confuse activity with achievement"

- John Wooden

I believe that work is good for the soul. But being busy is stupid bullshit, as is needing to appear busy to impress others. Other people are too obsessed with themselves to care what you're up to anyway.

I would nuance that by saying that productive work is good for the soul. When you can look back on what you did today and see some tangible evidence of it, that's satisfying. To me it's most satisfying if it's a physical thing, but something like a working piece of software does it as well.

Of course all I've done so far today is eat breakfast and surf the web, so it's not looking so good.

Most "busyness" is good old-fashioned social ineptitude mixed with an ill-defined and defensive elitism. It comes from a "could-do-better" social-climbing mentality combined with incompetence in execution. It's an end result of (a) wanting only to associate with "high-value" people for some definition of high value, but (b) being unable to assess value on account of not giving anyone a chance. So the resulting behavior is to put this decision off indefinitely.

The "I'm busy" shield is a way of rejecting people without rejecting them. It's the ultimate in indecision. And most of these "oh-so-busy" people spend as much time on stupid shit (or useful work, but done inefficiently) as anyone else.

That describes me very well, except I am definitely not a busy person. I just don't like doing social things -- or rather I get a sort of malaise at the thought of going to them, for exactly the reasons you describe here. I've honestly never seen it laid out this well before.

But I don't think of it as social ineptitude, only because when I commit to doing things, I can be "on" and meet people and have a great time and all that. Beforehand, however, the thought of getting into that mentality and doing all that stuff seems like "work" to me, and I just feel like I don't wanna do it.

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