On Busyness / by AB Mann

I have been busy at work. Right now I have twelve people on my team. I meet with them for at least 30 minutes every week which requires preparation and organization time reviewing what they’ve done in the previous week. That means I spend an entire work day talking to or thinking about my direct reports. Plus an hours a week we meeting as a QA group to talk about stuff going in the division

         9 hours counted.

I also oversee 4 applications - 5 if you count one that isn’t in active development besides bug fixes. Each of these applications has designated developers and QAers and they meet every other week to discuss project status, designs, current problems. For 1 application, I own and run that meeting. Now, I do not always attend the other application meetings but that accounts for another 2 -4 hours in a week.

       13 hours counted.

As a manager, I have management meetings where we discuss division level problems, projects, customer escalations. We also meet as a review board to discuss all of the fixes customers request for our applications. Almost everyone one of our contracted customers uses at least two of the applications I oversee - when you buy our clinical applications, the fees include licensing for my applications - so we have requests coming from over 250+ possible organizations. These meetings take about 4-5 hours a week with additional reparation time included.

       18 hours counted.

Additional QA management meetings, meeting with my manager take about another hour., and regular review and assignment of designs and incoming development I’m also the owner for one Company Wide Efforts, one internal process shift project, and portions of regulatory policy development where I regularly get calls from all over the company to help them explain how the functionality works.

       22 hours counted. (1)

Any way you look at it it, it’s hard to say I’m not being employed - be always employ’d.

My typical week has all the markings of industry. Tasks abound, urgent issues that only I can address, my team needs me, the phone rings (2). This is how you work, right? This is being important.

Behind that mask of always employ’d”, through the haze of email and meetings and phone calls, lurks the question: was my time spent doing quality things?

The full quote Franklin used to describe his virtue of industry is this:

“Be always employ’d in something useful.”

In something useful. There in lies our dilemma - when you lose half of your day to required meetings, urgent interruptions, managerial debacles, how do you know when what you’re doing is useful and not just being busy?

I question, then, if I am being industrious or just busy with my work week as previously described. I certainly and thoroughly enjoy working directly with my team but am I using those 22 prescribed hours well?

Unmasking Busy

Busyness is the specter of engagement. It wears the mask of importance and gives you that same rush you used to get being fully engaged in a task from shallow activities packed into your day.

This description from Rands in Repose describes the sensation well:

"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.”

Usefulness is different. Usefulness is engagement in your tasks that bring out your (or other’s if you’re a manager) greater good.

Industriousness is blending these two things.

Once unmasked.

This idea applies outside of just work or jobs and it is what Franklin was really trying to get at. It’s not that one should spend every waking hour working (3) but should being doing things that satisfy you or help you to be a happier person

Example: I believe regular exercise is an act of industry. When I am exercising, especially intervals and weights I have discovered, I am much calmer and more engaged in my life. I think clearer, sleep better, and even enjoy doing little things a little better (4).

Alternate: reading books is an act of industry. Reading expands your thoughts, engages your imagination, increases your vocabulary, and generally allows you to divert anxiety or stress from the day to give your self a chance to recuperate.

Counter examples: Social Media bouncing, TV, Desert Golf (5)

These things are hardly bad. I would consider Facebook or Twitter or what have you to be acts on industry when they help us free our minds from something stressful. I check Twitter when I’ve been hitting my head against a problem for a while with no progress and need to force myself to work on something else. It’s operational backgrounding for a problem. I’m not going to immediately solve it but need it out of my ind so I can move on to other things.

It’s just doing things like reading or responding on Facebook interrupting the task where it becomes problematic. trying to return to the same, previous task between status updates derails your mind - it is disruption instead of diversion.

Applied industry

Franklin may have meant Industriousness as a means to avoid debt and bring personal wealth but it’s the avenue to a more complete person. Working for work’s sake is as debilitating as debt, as unhealthy as regular drunkenness.

Busy + Useful is where you find achievement in anything you do. It’s the engaging sort of task be it for your job, your hobby, or your health.

So I consider - am I spending those 22 hours well? On occasion, yes. When I am taking the time to review my team’s accomplishments, what each person has done in the week, understanding how they apply themselves, and recognize that for our weekly meetings, yes - I am absolutely using that time well.

When I am disengaged, running from meeting to meeting, answering emails on my phone while trying not to run into people in the hallways, no - that is not using my time well. This is shallow engagement, the quick high of putting out fires or responding to questions that distracts me into believe i’m accomplishing something (6).

The key here is understanding how to ensure that what I’m putting in the remaining hours, what promises I’m making, are getting my full attention but still allowing me to fully attend those committed hours.

That’s really the secrete, right?

From the 1738 (7) edition of Poor Richard’s Almanac:

Drive thy business; let not that drive thee.

Work you time. Don’t let it work you.





  1. This is, realistically, 50% of my average week - over the ten years of my career, I average about 44-46 hours a week. I’ve only recently started regularly pulling 50 hours.

  2. Good god I hate phones….

  3. Unless working your job is what really drives you, satisfies you, makes you happy. Just don’t forget that moderation is a virtue too.

  4. Like cleaning dishes. Crazy, right?

  5. It’s never just one more hole….

  6. I’m not saying meetings are useless. I’m saying my time is useless in them when I am unprepared or distracted. It is up to me to make that time good time.

  7. He also published that aphorism in the 1744 edition. Something are always true. And good page fillers.