Are you busy?

My dad was fond of the expression “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it” (which, according to the almighty Google, can be attributed either to Lucille Ball or Ben Franklin. But then hasn’t every famous quote been at some point in time attributed to Ben Franklin?)

Regardless of who originally coined the phrase, I was unquestionably raised to perceive busy-ness as a virtue. The expression, as I always understood it, implied that the busy person was busy because they could be counted on to get things done, and therefore were entrusted with the doing of many things. My parents were always busy people. My dad served on a variety of boards and committees related to his busy engineering careers. My mom was always helping out the elderly and infirm members of the extended family. Both were involved with endless church committees and other forms of volunteer work. Even now, late in her seventies, my mother’s infamous “book”– the daybook she carries everywhere to keep track of which grandchild she is picking up and which friend she is ferrying to an appointment– rivals my Outlook calendar for fullness.

photo source:
photo source:

My work is busy. And then I come home to more busy, doing all the things I want to do that I am too busy being busy at work to do during the day. Judging from my family history, I may as well accept that I am always going to be that proverbial “busy person.”  But lately, I have come to a couple of realizations about the nature of “busy” that have caused me to rethink my assumptions about the relative virtue of being busy.

Perhaps the reason you should ask a busy person if you want to get something done is that the busy person won’t say no. Perhaps they are busy because they won’t say no. Can’t say no. I know there have been times in my life when I was busy with things that weren’t all that important to me, but to which I had made a commitment from which I didn’t know how to extricate myself. I would like to think I’ve broken that habit, but once in a while I will catch myself signing on for some activity that, deep down, I really don’t think is how I want to spend my time.

I have also observed that there is a big difference between doing things and getting things done. And so I have started working a little harder at distinguishing between motion and momentum.

Motion, to me, does not have a direction. I can be in constant motion and be careening unproductively in a million directions. Motion is what my cat is doing when she randomly breaks into a sprint, tearing back and forth through the house with no visible pursuer or apparent destination. Motion looks very busy. And it can go on looking very busy for a long time.

Momentum, on the other hand, suggests to me that my actions are propelling me in a purposeful direction. That no matter how distant my ultimate destination, I do have one, and I can see the distance I have travelled. Even if I have to measure it in millimeters.

I’m always going to be busy. But I am learning how to watch my busy-ness more closely to ensure that it is not simply frenzied motion for the sake of motion, but rather a steady momentum that propels me step by step towards the things that matter.

Because travelling fast is only a virtue if you like where you’re going.




17 thoughts on “Are you busy?

  1. God, but I am happy to have stumbled across your blog. Want an amazingly insightful person you are…I relish your words like a true connoisseur of wine relishes a rare vintage year. They are meant to be consumed and savored, regardless of the cost. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. TP Hogan

    This is so very true. Thank you for the insight. Sometimes we don’t notice ‘Motion’ until it is pointed out to us quite like this.

  3. Wonderful post.

    During a particularly stressful time at Bell Canada when I was overwhelmed with work, I went to my supervisor to ask for help. Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, he said, “The willing horse takes the load.” In other words, learn to say “no.”

  4. It’s hard to say no, especially when you know you can do the task, and might even enjoy doing the task. However, there are just 24 hours in a day, and some sleep is necessary for our health. Too often we take on an additional task and have to let another one go. The trick is to choose wisely when deciding which task to keep and which to trash. Just don’t neglect what is really important.

  5. Gloria

    I’ve just recently found your blog and am still working my way through your archives. I am going slowly so that I don’t go too fast and then wish I had more. I love your description of motion and made me remember and laugh at all the times my kitties have done that, and left me wondering what the ? I can easily say no in my personal life, but haven’t figured out how to say no on the job, because it might be considered insubordination when asked to do something. Also, I think that saying no might make a difference at performance evaluation time. People go to the people who are conscientious, responsible, dependable, efficient, as well as willing. I feel better in my soul when I don’t say no, even though I usually pay the price of then being taken advantage of. Thank you for this.

  6. Caitlyn

    Thanks for the distinction. I can relate to the experience of careening, purposeless motion. My current situation has made me sit back and just be–a change many would relish, but I find trying. Your words offer support in a common struggle!

  7. Thanks ! The distinction between Motion and Momentum is very interesting. You create a doubt in me about the meaning of my company (public transit) signature : Society in Motion. Food for thought.

  8. This is so helpful and calm. I think some people are “busy” because it makes them feel needed and wanted at work and in their personal lives, when they might be scared to just “be” themselves. Saying no terrifies some people because if you reject them, they can reject you…saying yes to everything is a great way to please everyone and die of exhaustion and resentment.

    I recently took 10 days off from work and did very little. I feel human again.

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