Are You Busy Doing Nothing?


The other day I heard this song and the lyrics caught my attention—especially this part:

  • We spend all our time running for our lives
  • Going nowhere, it’s really something
  • Getting busy, doing nothing

Almost everyone I know these days answers the question how are you doing with busy. And I’m no exception.

Why are we so busy? And more importantly what are we busy doing?

The why behind busy

Society frowns upon idleness and laziness. No one likes to say I wasn’t doing anything. It looks and feels better to be doing something.

We tend to equate being busy with being alive. If we’re fully living our lives, we must be doing something … anything.

Doing is viewed as a better way of spending our time than stillness and contemplation.

Being busy gives us a sense of importance and value. When we’re doing something we feel we matter … until we look deeper at what we’re actually doing.

The what behind busy

There are two types of busy. When busy, look into which category your activity fits into.

A genuine busy which means you’re doing something that’s important to you. In this case you’re like a busy bee—energetic and consciously pursuing what you want to accomplish.

A fake busy which is basically being busy doing nothing. This is the type of busy that gives a false sense of productivity or purpose. For a short while you plunge into an activity without thinking about the outcome. You only realize when you’re done that you feel drained and without much to show for your time and energy.

This type of busy is what adds to our anxiety and frustration. Over time it weakens our self-discipline and erodes our motivation.

An invitation

In this article I’m going to explore some of my doing nothing activities. If you feel you have been wasting your time and energy this would be a good opportunity to look at your choices and take notice.

Your experience is not going to be identical to mine. But in all likelihood your reasons for doing something and the needs you’re trying to meet will be similar.

As you read, try to answer these questions for yourself.

  • What activates do you do on a regular basis that drain you without meaningful results?
  • Why did you do them? What were you looking for?
  • How did you feel after you were done?

Before we delve into our fake busyness, let’s keep the following in mind.

No judgment: No matter what you come up with, please don’t beat yourself up for it. I’m going to imagine that a friend is telling me this and meet her with compassion to avoid judging myself harshly.

No regrets: If you come up with things that were a complete waste of time, just remember that hindsight is 20/20. We can’t undo the past. We’re better off awakening now and doing things differently from this moment on.

No filters or excuses: We have an amazing ability to justify, or mask our actions. If we want to change, we need to be honest with ourselves and that means facing the truth—unfiltered.

The experiences I’m sharing with you are only examples that I’m comfortable airing publicly. This is an intimate exercise that you need to do for yourself. You don’t need to share it with anyone else. Or you can share it with a close loved one if you want feedback.

The main goal is to become aware of the behavior.

We can’t change something until we know what it is and take responsibility for it. From there we can choose to move in a different direction. So here we go.

My fake busy activities and the reasons behind them

I can pinpoint most of my fake busyness these days because I’ve been tracking my activities. Think of these as a starting point when you look at the fake busy in your life.

1- Online “research” and networking

Instead, for example, of focusing on writing, I go online looking for pictures, quotes and then get sidetracked by a couple of articles. An hour later, I’ve got nothing done. This is not research. It’s avoidance and resistance (more on this below).

Then there is the social networks trap. I go on Facebook or Twitter and start looking for people and read their stuff or look at their pictures, not because I want to connect with them. But just to know what others are up to.

I used to do this a lot in the past. Thankfully, not as much any more. I had to question the underlying reasons behind the desire to spend my time online looking at other people.

The reasons I was able to come up with were one (or a combination) of the following:

Comparison: When I felt curious about what others were doing it was because I wanted to compare their lives to mine and assess who’s doing better. It was a trap to boost my ego or beat myself up—depending on what I found.

Feeling pain: In low moments of self-esteem there was a desire to poke at the wounds of the past. You could say it’s emotional (instead of physical) cutting. It made me feel alive.

Nostalgia: Reminiscing about the good old times. This wasn’t from a place of appreciation, but from a place of lack and longing for something that doesn’t exist now.

When I was looking at others, I was seeking validation—feeling that I mattered, and my life was worth something.

2- Entertainment masquerading as knowledge

I’m an advocate of watching TV—consciously. There are good stories to be shared and TV is a wonderful medium of expression. TV, however, can be a massive time-suck—especially when I’m watching something and thinking that I’m learning or doing something productive.

I can watch all the financial commentary on CNBC to my heart’s content. But that’s not going to make me a better investor. It usually adds to my stress and fear. The same applies to watching CNN or reading news online. I’m not going to change the world by knowing everything that’s going on.

The important news can usually be summed up in a few headlines. But the 24-hour news cycle hypes it into an event that demands your undivided attention for hours on end. And that’s not knowledge; it’s entertainment.

Entertainment is usually a source of escape. And there is nothing wrong with it, if you know that you are escaping and you’re okay with it.

When I’m not okay with escaping there is usually a reason behind it and it’s rooted in one of these scenarios.

Avoiding scary work that matters and still nudges at me. I know what I need to do but I resist it with all the might of my subconscious mind.

Lack of clarity and motivation. When I feel overwhelmed or can’t bring myself to start working, I go for a mind numbing activity.

Feeling tired and resisting the need to rest. If I don’t get enough sleep, I usually feel sluggish by noon. And I fight the feeling like a 3-year old.

3- Anticipating/over thinking/over planning

This is one of the fakest busy I practice. And unfortunately I still do. Mental busyness is harder to crack because it’s mostly unconscious and habitual.

Some of the things I do:

Fretting about something way ahead of time: Let’s say I have a doctor’s appointment on Thursday (or anything out of my daily routine). I start worrying about it on Monday.

My mind starts questioning and complaining: Do I really have to go? It’s going to rain; I might have a headache. I have to leave early to avoid traffic. I wish the appointment were earlier so I can get it over and done with.

This drains my energy, needlessly.

Planning and planning some more: Most of the things I haven’t done so far (that I still would like to do) are stuck in some form of planning limbo. I don’t want to write a book before I research this or that, for example.

Feeding doubts of not being ready enough: This is probably a result of being stuck in planning. The more planning, the more data, the more confusion, the more resistance. It’s a vicious cycle.

There is one reason behind all of this and that’s fear—fear of the unknown and new. So my need for safety keeps me in anticipation/preparation mode.

4- Shuffling papers and putting stuff away

Being organized is a good thing—when it’s done right. I have some healthy organizing habits but I have others that don’t help at all.

I don’t like a messy desk and usually by the end of the day my desk has to be clean. So instead of dealing with incoming paperwork, I just put the papers away (nicely in a box).

Over time the papers add up and I start noticing the box. And it eats at me. I’ve created a new project for myself that I have to deal with at one point.

Putting stuff away can be a hindrance when it’s done to avoid dealing with something. I can spend 15 to 20 minutes putting stuff away and making everything look neat. It is a waste of time because I haven’t really dealt with anything.

This is a tactic of avoidance and a way to feel better without putting much thought into the action.

I hope you find the above examples useful when you uncover your own fake busyness.

In the next article I’ll share ideas and practical steps to reduce the “busy doing nothing” activities.