Bored and Busy

This article is about finding flow and fulfillment in your work.

But more importantly, it’s about avoiding despair, boredom, and frustration.

This was written to solve my own problem. For a while, I wanted to tear my hair out and didn’t realize what was actually wrong. Ostensibly, my career was progressing, but I felt uninspired, frustrated, bored, and stressed.

I’ve discovered that the inverse of my fulfillment occurs when I’m both bored *and* busy.

Bored & Busy: the Antithesis of Flow

Being bored isn’t all that bad if you’re not busy.

Boredom, in fact, is necessary to reflect and let your thoughts wander.

Great ideas come from idle time. Even doing rote, boring tasks from time to time is meditative (think: doing the dishes, manually entering data, cleaning up a spreadsheet, etc.).

Being busy isn’t all that bad if you’re not bored, as long as this is only for a short time period.

Under the pressure of a deadline, great work gets done. Sometimes your goals require short bursts of extreme busy-ness, running from meeting to meeting and never having a moment to reflect. This pace, however, isn’t sustainable in the long run. Short bursts — provided they aren’t boring — are fine, though.

It’s the combination of the two that is deadly.

It’s when you have no time to think and what you’re working on isn’t engaging.

You find yourself slipping into apathy.

Ideas, insights, and sparks of inspiration come more rarely. You find yourself anxious, vigilant, and easily irritated. You feel lost in the wilderness.

The above description is my “anti-goal.” The opposite of that is what I want instead: to be free to work on challenging things.

Avoiding “Busy” Work: Lay Claim to Your Universe & Make Space for Excellence

“Someone who says I am busy is either declaring incompetence (and lack of control of his life) or trying to get rid of you.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Bed of Procrustes

To the uninitiated, being busy looks the same as being successful.

Before joining the working world, I conflated a full calendar with a full life. I pictured Future Alex in a place like Manhattan striding from office to office while taking phone calls and sipping coffee. Now I pity those that build a life like this.

First, let’s define “busy.”

“Busy” implies obligation, something you have to do in place of something you’d rather be doing.

“How have you been?”

“Busy!”

“Oh? What’s been occupying your time?”

“Painting and spending time with my family.”

You don’t hear that too often.

No, rather, “busy” is a combination of quantity of activity + external obligations. Though, you can actually enforce these obligations internally, without real external pressure (that idea of self-flagellation and criticality, however, is beyond the scope of my article).

Being busy isn’t filling all of your time with your desired work (spending all day painting), and it’s not needing to do 1 meeting or go to the DMV once; it’s having all or most of your time filled with undesired obligation.

Additionally, being “busy” isn’t necessarily just having a full calendar or a planned out life, though I personally do not like that style of living (I’m much more of an early Marc Andreessen vs. a later one). Some jobs are all about keeping a full calendar, such as sales or customer support or venture capital.

These situations are different, because the flow state is the meeting or the obligation. A corporate meeting is a prototypical example of busy-ness, so I’ll be using it in this article.

But I’ll hedge and say that no activity is inherently “busy.” Busy is in the eye of the beholder.

That out of the way, let’s explore the most common form of busy-ness among knowledge workers: the corporate meeting, or rather, a calendar that looks like this:

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In most jobs, meetings are looked at as a necessary evil — albeit a strangely common form of evil (if that’s how we’ll agree to describe the pervasive encroaching on one’s time and space to get meaningful work done).

Left to our own devices, many of us would opt for deep work and space to create. It’s where the value that we’re paid for as knowledge workers is created.

Joyce Carol Oates, in her interview with Tim Ferriss, described the opposite of creative output as such:

“And the opposite of that, I think, is being interrupted many times in situations, professional or familial, where one is interrupted and one’s energy is drained off in different directions so that we don’t have the concentration that we need. That is really the great enemy of creativity.”

By definition, then, busy-ness prevents actual work (generative work) from being accomplished.

It’s easy to see this problem as an individual and construct an ideal work day that limits distractions. However, the problem is that others want your time, too.

Sometimes for great reasons (for example, taking a sales call for my agency is a great use of my time). Sometimes for benevolent reasons (often, a colleague just wants some clarity, feedback, or brainstorming to get past a blocker. There may be a better way, but a meeting will accomplish the task). Sometimes out of sheer laziness (“let’s schedule a weekly catchup with us ~12 people to make sure we’re aligned”).

If you, like me, have trouble saying no and setting boundaries, you end up with a chaotic calendar and little time to work, and even less time to think.

Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, wrote a column in the New Yorker recently that discussed these external pressures.

According to him, “the shortcomings of personal-productivity systems like G.T.D. become clear. They don’t directly address the fundamental problem: the insidiously haphazard way that work unfolds at the organizational level. They only help individuals cope with its effects.”

When you have a culture of unchecked externalities, where the default choice is to “throw time on your calendar,” you end up with a crazy game of whatJason Fried calls “calendar Tetris.”

The antidote to this is simple yet not easy: set boundaries on your time.

First you have to clarify what an ideal life looks for you. A good way to do this is with “anti-goals,” or thinking about what the opposite of what you want would look like.

Andrew Wilkinson wrote about this, and described his anti-day as such:

So he decided to set some rules to accomplish what he feels is a successful day:

This is simple, but not easy. By setting strong boundaries, you’ll feel the pressure to please others. You just have to be confident that, by setting boundaries to allow for generative work, you’re actually making space to do the work that is most valuable. This is clearly a net win for all involved.

In defending his empty calendar, Basecamp CEO Jason Fried says, “What do I do with all that empty space? My job! I design, I write, I think, I work!”

The inability to set boundaries is often just the desire to people-please, and every time you enforce a boundary on your time, your inner child thanks you and that action empowers future confidence (or so my therapist told me).

Avoiding superfluous meetings is a visible and tangible step in the right direction, but other forms of busy-ness, often due to your own sloth and bad habits, can invade your life.

Social media, Slack notifications, emails, and rote work that you can outsource, delegate or automate are all culprits. The more tedious the interruption, the worse for your mental health and future motivation and performance.

The antidote here is still capital A Awareness of your actions, your desired life, and the gap between the two. In this instance, you’re better off reading a book like The Power of Habit to fix personally inflicted attacks on your time and energy.

This busy work, in aggregate, not only reduces your time, resulting in less output. It reduces your capacity to do good work. David Kadavy wrote in Mind Management Not Time Management:

“In fact, [a study] found that being extremely busy doesn’t just decrease creativity on the day on which you’re busy. It also reduces your creativity the next day, the day after that, and throughout the project. Compounded over time, you pay a big price for being excessively busy.”

Some Tangible and Tactical Things You Can do Right Now Avoid Busy Work

It’s hard to completely avoid distractions and the feeling that you’re “busy.” Most people can’t just pack their bags and work from Walden.

Instead, micro-steps in the right direction are helpful. Here are some things I’ve done:

  • Block social media during your prime productivity hours. I block all social and news sites from 7am until 11:30am. I use Freedom.To to do this.
  • Have a “Sacred Saturday” (or any day of the week) where you simply schedule nothing and do exactly what you want to do. Without obligation, I tend to have profoundly productive days. But since there’s no pressure, sometimes I just go on a long walk with my dog and eat a decadent lunch. The power is in the freedom to choice and not to judge or feel guilt either way. I’m writing this now on a “Sacred Saturday,” by the way.
  • Apply time blocks to your calendar for “focus work,” and when people try to book in those slots, politely decline or reschedule to a time that works for you.
  • Track your energy levels during given tasks. Anything you do repeatedly that drains your energy is a good candidate to outsource, delegate, or remove from your life.  

Avoiding Boredom: the Case for Tougher Challenges & the Pursuit of Internal Control

“Undercompensation from the absence of a stressor,inverse hormesis, absence of challenge, degrades the best of the best.” — Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile

When I was a student, I got As in the toughest classes and Bs (or sometimes Cs) in the easy ones. My Dad hated this, but to me it’s now obvious why: you need a challenge to motivate you in the first place.

According to Randolph M. Nesse, MD, in “Good Reasons for Bad Feelings,” high moods (motivation, engagement) and low moods (depression, apathy) are useful in calibrating your attention and motivation in propitious and unpropitious situations.

He explains that most behavior is in pursuit of a goal — either attempts to get something or attempts to evade or prevent something. In either case, there is a goal and you’re trying to make progress towards it. High or low moods are calibrated to situations that arise during goal pursuit.

He gives the analogy of picking berries:

“First, how much energy should go into your efforts at the current bush? Should you pick berries as fast as you can or at a leisurely pace? Second, when should you quit? Is it better to keep picking berries from this bush or to stop and look for another one? Finally, when it is time to do something else, what should you do next? Gather another kind of food, do something else, or go home?”

Boring, fruitless, or otherwise unengaging work results in low moods and less motivation and creative energy. If you listen to the body, these are cues that the goal at hand or the task needs to change. If you’re lacking motivation, one potential solution is working on a more interesting problem.

I know this sounds blunt, but I like David Kadavy’s mini-essay, “stop doing boring shit.”

The flipside is that if you’re anxious and overwhelmed, it may be that that goal or the task is too challenging for your current skill set, and you need to recalibrate downwards.

The ideal split is to feel challenged but not helpless and overwhelmed. This is where that magical state of “Flow” appears:

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If you do it right, this tension can result in flow, the feeling of being completely immersed in an activity. Your perception of time changes. According to many psychologists and philosophers, this state is an optimal experience in terms of fulfillment and happiness.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi put it in Flow:

“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”

This feeling isn’t only pleasurable, but it results in growth. You become a more extraordinary person through repeated challenges and flow experiences. You also produce better work (which makes you more valuable to the company). So seek flow. Seek challenging goals.

One note: you can seek both external challenges as well as work on controlling your own internal consciousness to experience challenges in mundane activities. To be frank, I find the former to be more interesting (and easy). The latter ability seems to be improved through meditation and mindfulness. The best case is you can do both, but for the sake of this article, let’s talk about increasing the bar on the actual goal/task at hand.

Three ways I like to introduce challenge into my life:

  • Increase the difficulty of the task at hand.
  • Increase the speed at which I’m moving.
  • Play games or change the angle/mindset.

Increase the Difficulty

Video games would be super boring if you just played the same level the whole time. You progress through increasingly challenging missions and enemies at a comparable rate of your own improvement or skill development.

If it’s too challenging, you lose — game over. If it’s too boring, you quit and go find a new video game (a new berry bush to pick from).

Why would it be different in your career, your hobby, or any other infinite game you’re playing?

The first thing to do is, again, become capital A Aware that you’re unhappy and stalling. Note where you’re feeling bored. Then find a way to tweak what you’re doing or find a new mission to engage in.

If you’ve learned R, maybe it’s time to learn Shiny & markdown. Or maybe it’s building something different in R. Maybe it’s learning to write more efficient code.

There’s no universal prescription on a situational basis, other than Nassim Taleb’s edict from Antifragile:

“Avoidance of boredom is the only worthy mode of action. Life otherwise is not worth living.”

Increase the Speed

The work at hand can provide its own worthy challenge, but so can the speed at which you accomplish it. When in doubt, try to turn up the speed and see what happens to your level of engagement and motivation.

This is especially true if the work itself is repetitive or dull. I first learned this trick when painting houses as a summer job in college. Trying to find tricks to beat my internal clock and also others made it more fun.

I love, love, love Frank Slootman’s Amp It Up essay. One of his three points is increasing velocity:

“Without leaders driving the tempo in an organization, it will naturally settle into a lethargic pace. If you have ever worked in or with government, you have seen extreme examples of this. There is no urgency about anything, other than quitting time. It’s suffocating being in such organizations, as if everybody is swimming in glue.”

Get extreme about pace. In the same essay, Slootman advises:

“The pace has to be profound, palatable, breathtaking, order-of-magnitude type change. You want to go 20% faster? It’s barely discernible, and you will be back in your old mode before long.”

If you’ve got to do something boring — say writing a listicle on Mailchimp alternatives or putting together a slide deck to present to colleagues — do it faster.

Time yourself and try to beat your best time. I suspect a large part of the success of the Pomodoro timer is due to capped time periods and the implicit desire to get work done within those time slots.  

Work on Internal Consciousness and Control (or Play Games)

The game you’re playing in your head isn’t fully depended on the game you’re playing externally.

In other words, what you’re ostensibly doing isn’t the same thing as how you’re doing it or how you’re approaching it.

In working as a content marketing strategist, your job is to write content and come up with the roadmap to generate traffic and business. But the internal game you’re playing could vary immensely based on your goal or mission:

  • You might be gunning for a promotion to Sr Director of Content
  • You might be trying to switch careers to product management
  • You might be trying to become the greatest writer in the world
  • You might be saving up money to launch your own agency business
  • You might be trying to build a network through your work

All of these games result in different levels of fulfillment depending on your progress towards the goal and desirability of the game to your own end goals.

In a more micro-example, you’re sitting in a meeting but your “game” could be one of many things:

  • To learn as much as you can about the operating styles of your colleagues
  • To learn as much as you can about leadership through how your boss runs the meeting
  • To impress other with your intelligence and value through the remarks you give
  • To get more work done (in which case you’re probably answering emails during the call)

Outside of canceling my bullshit meetings and moving the important ones from morning to my afternoon, I’ve found I can be happier and more challenged just by changing my internal goals when attending meetings. Now I attend it like an anthropologist and I take notes on how different people communicate and interact. It’s fun!

Finding the Productive Sweet Spot

If I find that I am simultaneously bored and busy, the first step is to cut down on obligations to save time and create space for reflection. Via negativa before adding anything additional to your life.

The easiest way to do that is to cut out completely valueless or unhealthy habits, such as doom scrolling on social media or binge watching Netflix or drinking alcohol.

The next ring is the ostensibly productive things you’re doing that could be outsourced, delegated, or dropped. The next ring is prioritization — doing what matters most. The final ring, the center, should be protected at all costs — this is the key business priorities, your health, relationships, etc.

The more you can shave off the edges of this ring, the closer you can get to the bullseye, the better.

Once you’ve shaved off enough from the outer layers, then you have the time and space to think about ways to increase the level of challenge, the pace, or the scope of what you’re working on. That’s when things get fun.

Conclusion

This was a personal solution to a problem I had in my own life: I felt both bored and busy and it was affecting my happiness as well as my productivity.

Honestly it’s been enough just telling myself this phrase —  “bored and busy” — and actively avoiding it. But I hope the tactical tips help you as well.

I want to note here also that much of this insight has come from a few books in particular:

Finally, I just want to reiterate that this message is simple but not easy: do less boring shit and clear up your damn schedule to make time for the things that make life worthwhile and fun.

It requires constant check-ins and evaluations, but quality of life raises immensely when you’re not bored and busy.

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Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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