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.