On ‘busy’ – a dialogue

– It’s been over a month since I last wrote here. I started the year committing to daily practice. But things changed. I started a new role, and have found myself unable to continue, for a while at least. I got busy.

– Hey, I’m catching you here. Weren’t you the one mocking ‘busy’ people earlier? See – now you’ve become busy, like the rest of us.

– Wait a minute. I had a moment of weakness, true, but I think I’m getting out of it.

– OK, so you were busy, now you’re not, what happened?

– Well, here’s a thing I understood. Last week, a friend said the following thing, he said: “I’ve got so much to do! It’s not that there’s anything complex or difficult I have to do, but there’s a lot of small tasks, and I haven’t found anyone who could do them for me fast enough, so I have to spend a lot of my time.” Funnily enough, the previous day, I had lunch with another friend who said the exact opposite: “It’s not that the things I have to do take a lot of time,” she said, “technically, I could do it all very fast. But everything is so complex that I have to spend a lot of time thinking about all the details and the consequences.” They’re very different situations.

– OK, so you found out there’s two types of busy – which one are you then?

– You didn’t quite get my point. I still think ‘busy’ means disorganised, and I think neither of my two friends were actually ‘busy’. One had a lot of small things to do, the other a lot of complex things to think about. But as I said before, I did become ‘busy’ during the last few weeks, and I think I just got out of the hole today. Hopefully, I learnt something in the process.

– I like the honesty. Tell me what you learnt.

– Well, this is what I think happened. I started a new role, in a new field, with new people, working on a new project. There’s a lot I have to understand, new relationships, new strategies, new concepts. Meanwhile, there’s a deadline to the project, and I felt I had to start moving before I could get the full picture. That’s how I became ‘busy’.

– So what you’re saying is, ‘busy’ means moving forward with no clear sense of direction.

– I guess that’s what I’m saying. ‘Busy’ can be be triggered by many small things to do, or it can be triggered by complexity, but in essence, they’re different things. ‘Busy’ is an emotional state of restlessness that makes you start anxiously shifting from one action to the other. Yet none of these actions really feels like a step that gets you closer to the goal – rather, it’s as if the goal was shifting with each new step. It’s not a pleasant state to be in, and if you’re not careful, it can easily start feeding on itself. ‘Busy’ may be one of the circles of hell.

– But you said you got out of it, right? What did you do?

– I guess the most interesting is not how I got myself out of it, but how I realised what was happening. I’ve always trusted my intuition to make decisions, especially when I’m dealing with complex things. If there’s more factors to consider than I can hold, and I have to take a course of action, I believe it’s a wise thing to let my brain detect a pattern.

– But when you’re running around trying to do seven things at once, it’s hard to find a pattern.

– Exactly. Here’s how the sequence unfolded this time. I saw myself getting into a state of emotional confusion, and I took it as an alarm signal. So I downloaded a mental health app called ‘Supebetter’

– I’ve heard of ‘Superbetter’

– It’s cool. I followed some of their suggestions – chugged a glass of water, walked around the block, danced in my room. It helped, but it didn’t fundamentally change anything. One particular suggestion, though, felt incredibly appealing. The app recommended: ‘engage in a hobby’. It resonated with me. I went to the Myer Toy shop, bought myself a world-map puzzle, and started working on it.

– Random

– Maybe, but that’s how things fell into place. Maybe my brain was looking for a solution, and it needed the puzzle to cristallise. It did feel like instinct. Anyway, over the last two days, I spent quite a lot of time on the puzzle. Continents emerged on the floor as I put the pieces together. But they formed independent islands, and I wasn’t sure where to place them in relation to each other. Then this morning, I found the piece between Europe and America – a narrow strait of ocean between Ireland and Newfoundland – and connected the various parts. I looked at the map in front of me, now forming a whole, and I had a flash of emotional insight. This was precisely what I’d been struggling with in my new role – I was trying to find out how the various components fit together, but more broadly, what I needed was to connect them with the rest of my life, and figure out the shape of the whole picture. Suddenly, it felt as if my body had found its balance. I felt a pattern emerge. I couldn’t put it into words, but the restlessness evaporated, replaced with calm and confidence.

– So you’re essentially saying, to get out of ‘busy’, you should stop and relax, and things will get better.

– Maybe that’s all it takes, and let the body finds its bearings. At least it worked for me. Now I’m back to writing in this blog, and I’m even experimenting with form.

– Well, wait until you start work again tomorrow, and you’ll see whether that was an actual shift, or just you feeling better after you got a break.

On reducing noise

I profoundly dislike the word busy. It conjures up images of scared chickens aimlessly running around the garden. “Busy’s just a polite way to say disorganised,” I often quip. Beside, since I imbibed Seneca’s On the brevity of life in year 12, I would not want to be caught dead describing myself as “busy”.

That being said, I like to be productive and engaged in multiple activities. Sometimes, deadlines overlap. I have identified that I can comfortably juggle three key areas of focus, but start bugging if the number goes beyond three. I have – also – learnt how to deal with this limitation. When too many things pile up, see whether one can be completed soon, and tackle it first. Reduce the noise.

I had to do that today. I am confirming my PhD next Wednesday; the following day, I’m flying to Sweden, and need to present a full proposal for my new role on the Monday. Meanwhile, I have to organise meetings and accommodation in Europe and Asia, and deal with the many little administrative tasks that pop up when you start a new job, ask for leave from a course of study, or travel internationally. Did I mention a podcast session yesterday, a Hackathon tomorrow, and a prototype language peer-learning event next week? Oof!

That was all too much for my little brain. And when it saturates, creativity reduces. So, this afternoon, I ticked off the PhD box, and took advantage of the brain fritter to tackle my admin and email backlog. Tomorrow, I’ll be guided by somebody through the steps of a Hackathon, recharge my extraverted energy, and on Wednesday, I’ll have only three things to focus on. Problem solved, back to manageable.

Chi Ku

When I was in China, I often noted that people seemed to put particular value on ‘working hard’ – working hard is the ethical equivalent of ‘being busy’ in the West. Working hard, long hours, with pain, is seen as positive – the result is not interrogated so much.

I also noted the long hours that people worked. When I was teaching at Alliance Francaise in Tianjin, my Chinese colleagues all had a full-time job, and taught on week-ends and evenings, adding twelve hours to their week. The same was true of students: almost all of them were professionals, and spent seventeen extra hours a week at Alliance Francaise to prepare their migration to Quebec.

Later, during my stay in Nanjing, I started questioning this ethics with Chinese friends. They said working a lot is seen as a form of virtue, no matter what the result is. Is there not a risk that this will develop a form of stupidity – the stupidity of oxen and donkeys carrying their load ahead without thinking about the goal, or how to lighten the burden.

As China rises, let’s not be carried over into the worship of long hours. Let’s be careful about our ‘busy’ culture.