The business of busyness

In the movie Iron Man, Tony Stark (Iron Man) tells Pepper Potts, his assistant, the following:

There is nothing except this. There’s no art opening, no charity, nothing to sign. There’s the next mission, and nothing else.

Another Tony, this time a real-one, Tony Schwartz in a HBR article a few years ago wrote about how being really busy is a way to avoid feeling anything because you have no time to think or feel. By extrapolation, you could say there’s just the next task to complete, the next deadline to hit, and nothing else.

I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve been busy in the same way that Tony Schwartz mentions and it leads to a single-minded focus to finish stuff; it also leads to your neglecting everything else. I’ve been busy to the point of working long hours and on weekends but it’s not something that I can see myself doing for months on end. But, I know people who do it project after project and I’ve wondered about how.

One way to do it is to neglect everything else as I’ve mentioned above; this means, if you have almost no family life, no social life, effectively no personal time or life. The other thing about why people do it is more interesting and I believe that money is a (small to medium) factor. Another factor is the feeling of accomplishment such work can bring. A big factor, though, is the thrill and excitement of meeting deadlines or working in a fast-paced (read: exciting) environment; as in, there are people who enjoy this kind of working. I’m not one of them; when you’re working in such a way that you’re not sure what day it is, I think that’s taking things too far.

In general, people seem to think that there’s something heroic about working extremely hard to a point where you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We tend to admire people who do the working on late nights [1], long hours, or weekends but not the people who manage a great balance between their work and personal lives while still producing quality work. Who hasn’t heard admiring stories about people (in government, tech, business, or medicine) who survive on lesser sleep than other mortals?

Maybe it’s a human thing to we admire the superhuman effort but there are costs because, unfortunately, we are not super-humans. You can do this sort of crazy working hours for a limited period (a few weeks) but if you keep pushing yourself for longer periods, then there are negative consequences. Your physical health is one, your emotional and mental health are the other, and then there are the consequences to your family and social life, and so on.

For companies too, I don’t think this sort of busyness is good for business. Lack of sleep, exercise, down time, and so on will lead to a decrease in the performance and quality of work [2]. So, rewarding unsustainable hard work is not a good example for companies to set either. Sadly though, I don’t think this mindset is going away anytime soon. So, it’s up to individuals to manage their work lives and set expectations boundaries.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I really need to get back to work.


[1]: Notice though that it’s almost always about the late nights but not so much about the person who wakes up early. Maybe there’s something more heroic about soldiering on well into the night as compared to taking a break and waking up early (and refreshed)?

[2]: Tony Schwartz, who founded The Energy Project, is also the co-author of a wonderful book called The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working; sub-title: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance.

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