Meditations on Career Generosity
Taking Responsibility for What You Love

Are You Really THAT Busy?


Long hours. . .  are often more about proving something to ourselves than actually getting stuff done. --Jessica Stillman, Why Working More than 40 Hours a Week is Useless

Over the past few years, I've come to realize that I have about 8-9 hours of work in me per day. That's it. Occasionally, if I'm really engrossed in a project, I can push for more, but usually I pay for that later with needing 4-5 hour work days that don't require a lot of mental energy. 

There was a time when I felt like this was problematic. After all, I work for myself and true entrepreneurs are all about the 60 hour work weeks. Anything less suggests that you aren't that committed to your work. So I would dutifully sit at my desk for 10-12 hour stretches of time, feeling like anything less was "not being serious" about what I do.

But here's the problem I observed--no matter how long I actually sat at my desk, I still didn't really do work past about 8 hours. The rest of my "work time" was largely swallowed up by mindless web surfing that always began as a "5-minute break" and ended two hours later with me wondering where the time had gone. It could also be chewed up in social conversations and shuffling of papers as I tried to figure out where I needed to go next. 

What I came to realize is that working a 55+ week was really a myth. I wasn't doing it. I was just thinking that I was because it was important to my identity that I be seen as "hardworking," which I defined by the number of hours I sat at my desk. Somehow this made me feel important to always be able to report to people I was "busy," and "stressed" and "overworked." 

In working with people on their career and professional development, I've seen that this issue of time--or more accurately our perception that we don't have enough of it --is one of the greatest barriers to growth and development. We have bought into the idea that our worth is measured by how many hours a day or a week we are "working," and because this notion is so important to us, we cling tightly to the fact that we are "too busy," without even looking at whether or not this is really true.

Laura Vanderkam in a fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal reminds us that how we spend our time is a choice and that saying we are "too busy" removes from us the burden of making those choices. When we are "too busy," we can act as though our time is something out of our control, rather than something we can choose to spend in different ways.

Aside from asking us to look at how we are REALLY spending our time (a very worthwhile activity), she makes the case for us to change our language around time so that we better understand the choces we are making:

Instead of saying "I don't have time" try saying "it's not a priority," and see how that feels. Often, that's a perfectly adequate explanation. I have time to iron my sheets, I just don't want to. But other things are harder. Try it: "I'm not going to edit your résumé, sweetie, because it's not a priority." "I don't go to the doctor because my health is not a priority." If these phrases don't sit well, that's the point. Changing our language reminds us that time is a choice. If we don't like how we're spending an hour, we can choose differently.

To this list I would add, "I'm not going to spend time on figuring out what I want do to next because that's not a priority." Or "I'm not going to take an hour a day for my own growth and development because that's not a priority. Watching television is a bigger priority to me."

When we say that we don't have time for our own growth and development, what we are really saying is that it's not a priority. We are choosing to spend time on other activities that somehow seem more important. That's OK, but we should be intentional about that, reminding ourselves that we are choosing one activity over another. 

For me, what I've realized is that growth and development, time for personal projects and time with my family and friends are important to me--important enough for me to give up the ego stroke I used to get from perceiving myself as "hardworking," because I sat at my desk for 12 hours a day. It feels better to me to say that other things are on my priority list too. Some days I back slide. The culture of work as measured in hours is a hard one to resist. But most of the time I'm clear. And it feels a lot better than it did before. 

So what are your priorities? How are you choosing to spend your time? 


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