Tech Life The dubious value of being busy

Busy is an Addiction

There’s a seductive dark side to The Builder’s High. The high afforded us by our brain when we are productive is delicious. For me, it’s comparable to the endorphin rush after a good workout. A foul mood vanishes, the weight of stress is lightened, and what was complex and difficult to fathom appears knowable.

Of course, I want more.

The issue, just like exercise, is that each time you build, the high becomes slightly harder to achieve. Part of your hormonal reward is based on the fact the thing you just built has never been built before. It’s novel and your brain commensurately rewards the new because it has learned after millions of years of evolution that doing so is collectively good for our species.

The situation arises: you enjoy the highs, but you are unable to create enough new to support these highs, so you trick your brain into rewarding you for doing far less – you convince your brain of the dubious value of being busy.

Gosh, I Feel… Great

Monday morning. I roll over to my nightstand and grab my iPad. Has anything blown up in the last six hours? No texts and no urgent emails. A quick scan of news sites shows me what the planet currently cares about and then I head into my cave after making a pot of coffee. Another deeper email scan to deal with the first round of mails that need attention followed by a glance at my calendar – the day is full. Nine meetings, blocked out for lunch, currently done at 6pm. Another quick scan of the planet and I’m in the car.

After decades of following this protocol, I’m certain of what I’m doing – I’m building mental momentum. I’m convincing my brain through a constant firehose of content of one thing: We are going to be super busy today – it’s going to be awesome. How about a hit of the good stuff? Now, I can rationalize this morning preparation as gathering context and mentally preparing for the day but what I’m really doing is overclocking my brain. This is why I’m drinking coffee. I want to make sure by the time I hit the office, I’m working at 112%, I’m walking fast in the hallways of the office with a smile on my face, I am ready to fully crush this day.

What I am really describing is a chemical addiction to the endorphins produced by my body that are supposed to reward productivity, but I have figured out how to force their creation via my advanced state of busy.

On the Topic of Busy

Rands, I’m a manager. I want to be a exemplar of the behavior I want to inspire in others. We need to have a sense of urgency and I am the living breathing example of that urgency. There are a great many forms of healthy busy. Yes, you can have a calendar packed full of meetings, but in your hurry to be urgent inspiration to others, give me your honest opinion. Are you happy that your day is going to be spent in conference rooms? Are you content knowing that the day will pass and, chances are, you’re not going to write a single line of code because your time will be spent dealing with the humans?

Engineers start their leadership journey hating meetings because of the questions like the ones I ask above, but over time, we start to convince ourselves of the value of these meetings. Like writing code, we start to associate our value with being invited to and attending these meetings. Admit it, if you’ve been a leader for while, it’s a source of pride that you’re booked all day – you’re important – you’re so… busy.

What I am describing is how I’ve lived years of my life. I’ve replaced the concrete act of building with a vast array of abstract tasks and acts that I believe are strategically important to the team, the product, and the company, but I’ve also learned to constantly question the motivation being the busy: Am I doing this because it’s actually important? Or because I like the rush with being busy?


For me, I know when I crossed a threshold into unhealthy busy. It happens at 4am. My eyes open and I’m deeply worried about… something. Let’s be clear what is happening here: at a time when my body should be resting and repairing, my brain believes the correct course of action is to wake-up in the middle of the night to work. These 4am worry sessions are a clear sign that I’m am losing the chemical arms race with my brain.

As an industry, we’ve created an impressive amount of institutionalized drama around getting things done. In large companies, we’ve got armies of people whose job it is to make sure that we understand the importance of that critical deadline. We’ve got leadership motivating us by telling us someone is going to eat us, so we better hurry. There are important people who’ve invested their money and are eager to see a return on their investment. We are surround by stimuli built to drive us harder and faster.

My advice is not that we should eagerly and fervently build the next thing, my advice is to constantly take the time to stop and understand the true nature of your busy.

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9 Responses

  1. This is a great article. The act of being busy may be affecting productivity.

  2. bhashit 10 years ago


  3. bhashit 10 years ago

    Exactly what I have been doing for the past 5 years. Although I am constantly questioning myself on the motives, it’s still quite hard to get out of that habit.

  4. I was once called on the carpet for “not having an appropriate sense of urgency” while calmly diagnosing and repairing (quickly, I might add) a server outage.

    My response was that in an emergency, you don’t want the ambulance crew and the fire crew to be as freaked out as you are. You want their handling of the situation to be calm and smooth.

    Can you imagine the fire truck showing up and the first guy off the truck standing in front of your burning house screaming, “Holy crap, that house is ON FIRE.”?

    No, you want that guy to move the freaked out people off to the side and take control of the situation and put the damned fire out.

  5. Alex Dunn 10 years ago

    This is extremely valuable.

    I happen to be at the very beginning of my software engineering career, and I think I tried coffee only once in my life so far.

    I do find myself both wanting to be in management with a greater ability to direct the company in the future and fearing the endless cycle of meetings whose productivity seems questionable to me.

    I want to bring this article around to the senior people I work with so that they can realize they do this, too. The senior most engineer on my team, although an amazing engineer, is also constantly playing some irrelevant news video and vibrating around his office on a caffeine high.

  6. This hit me right in the gut. Well said.

  7. So inspirational… Thank you. We are surrounded by fast food, MVP security lines in the airport, and express lanes in the grocery store. I remember my dad leaving carts full of groceries in line because the line was too long. We’d shop somewhere else, he’d say, and he was right: in the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism time is money. I was brought up with a strong emphasis on “hustle,” diligence in all things, work ethic, and enterprise. These ideas shaped me, molded me, into the man who never dared let a coworker arrive earlier or stay later, produce greater numbers, or deliver a better presentation. My wife, of Mexico, doesn’t understand me. She wonders why I don’t get home at 5 minutes after 5:00pm or why I take work calls at all hours of the night… I am starting to understand how right she is now. I am learning about my busy.