Being perceived as busy makes you a jerk, and misses the whole point of productivity

March 5, 2008 by Jared Goralnick

We have a problem when we equate busyness with productivity (or, worse yet, success). We have a problem when we let people know we’re fitting them in to our schedules. We’re all busy people, and some of us might be considered productive, but none of us have the right to make others feel less important. A productive person is one who gets a lot done but doesn’t feel busy (or make others feel that they are).

I was talking with one of my employees about how much I had to do and when I would be able to get him some feedback. A few minutes after our conversation I cringed–I may have leeway with when I get him the feedback, but he didn’t deserve my listing out my to do list. He has just as much to do, if not at work then in other places, and I should never let my “busy life” be more important.

I got a phone call last week and the client exclaimed, “I’m so lucky I got you on the phone…I know how busy you are.” Maybe he meant it as a compliment, but it sort of irked me. Here I am trying to feel on top of my life/schedule…and I’m making an important client feel like I don’t have time for him. No, that’s not quite what he said, but it bugged me. It’s not that I’m not busy, but I want it to be clear to people (especially friends and, well, prospects/clients) that I have time for them.

It’s all about the approach: when scheduling, working on a project, or running into someone in the street there are ways to move quickly without making other obligations seem more important. We may have good reasons for scheduling things well in advance, but people don’t need to know the details. If we do opt to share the details, we have to be careful with the tone–and this is where we can fail . Some examples:

  1. I really don’t have time for this today, sorry.
  2. I’m a little overwhelmed by a deadline, could we talk about this tomorrow?
  3. Could we talk about this tomorrow, I want you to have my full attention when we talk?

In the first case it’s all about you; it’s like saying “I have more important things right now.” In the second case you have a legitimate problem, but you’re still interested in the other person. In the third case it’s all about the other person; regardless of your responsibilities.

We need to pay attention to how we talk about our time because it translates to how we value the other person.

The easiest way to make people feel like we’re not busy is, of course, to not be busy. We may have a busy day, but we shouldn’t be busy people. Perhaps this seems like semantics, but hear me out: we want to be productive not busy. The purpose of systems like Getting Things Done and The 4-Hour Workweek is not just to cram more into a day, but to get control of it. Once we’re in control we can give our tasks and the people in our lives our full attention.

Whether or not we’re at that stage now, we can at least be a little more cognizant of how we talk about our time. Better yet, I’ve found that when I don’t make others think I’m so busy that I feel less busy myself.

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14 Responses to “Being perceived as busy makes you a jerk, and misses the whole point of productivity”

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  1. Ahson Wardak

    I completely agree. It takes a certain level of tact. In Corporate America, looking busy actually matters, and it means that you must be productive – much like the FedEx commercial. The trick usually works unfortunately, and the person that gets the same amount done in less time is seen as a slacker. They’re free time is seen as a liability, or sign of weakness. On the contrary, it is a sign of being resourceful and efficient.

    Being busy is as much about the psychological state, as it is about actually being busy. If we make others feel like we’re busy, then we must be doing something productive. It’s a matter of commiserating with others – “Look. I’m busy”.

    As you point out at the end of the post, instead of advertising our busy-ness, we would be better off thinking through the value of all the stuff that we’re doing. More often that we think, doing less is more. We don’t need to work more and harder, just smarter. But even before the Four Hour Workweek and Getting Things Done, Covey talked about scheduling priorities, not prioritizing your schedule, in First Things First.

  2. Skellie

    I agree in the sense that it can be damaging to make colleagues and so on feel like every time they get your ear for a moment you are doing them a favor. Coming from a freelance perspective, though, I see one potential pitfall:

    If others perceive you as being in high demand, as having a full schedule and generally having a lot of work, your perceived value/talent goes up. Clients want you more. Clients want to pay you more. It’s a social proof thing — if everyone wants you, you must be good. Freelancers who never seem busy, who make themselves available all the time, tend to get treated like they’re not busy for a reason.

    While taking the approach you advocate is definitely ideal for colleagues/family — and I think that’s exclusively what you’re talking about here, so my point is not a criticism — it might not be ideal in the case of clients. In fact, manufacturing some of that busyness can be good for business!

  3. Jake

    Great post, Jared. Similar to others, I agree strongly. We are all busy, of course, but our tendency to “act” busy is not productive, healthy, or connected when it comes to others.

    I’m always most surprised when this manifests through people more or less competing over who got less sleep. It is all too often put forward as though those who actually seek out 8 hours of rest every night are lesser people.

    Thanks for reminding us and helping us take a look at ourselves!

  4. Jared Goralnick


    Great call on the First Things First. And, if you haven’t checked it out, I recommend the Covey interview that Zen Habits did recently.


    You bring up a very difficult issue–the balance between the value of perceived availability and genuinely being there for people. There’s an additional nuance, too, which is that we have to be sure not to let people abuse our time.

    Generally though I completely agree that we shouldn’t allow our clients and prospects to think we have all the time in the world. I think we can accomplish this by scheduling things with them rather than responding to them right away, but I know what you mean, as there’s certainly much more to it. I may very well right a post about this balance. Stay tuned…


    Thanks for the warm thoughts. We all could likely use more sleep…

  5. Ben Cope

    Very well written article about the importance of making our clients feel valued!

    I too am guilty of being “too busy” (even for some of my most important clients) … but your article helps put things into the proper perspective!

    Great Job!

  6. Patrick Smith

    I’m curious how this jives with AwayFind?

    There’s a fine balance between “setting expectations” about one’s availability and communicating “I’m too busy for you right now.”

    Much of this seems to come down to managing interruptions gracefully… something particularly hard for me when I’m “heads down.”

    David Allan did a v. interesting podcast with Merlin Mann on this

  7. Jared Goralnick

    Thanks for the link, Patrick!

    AwayFind and auto response messages are designed to facilitate three things:

    * freedom for the AwayFind user
    * expectations for the one emailing the AF user
    * a way to notify the AF user in case of urgent needs

    We’re all busy, but we don’t all effectively set expectations to our availability–I think being candid about your situation in a respectful manner can be very helpful. I wrote more about that in the follow up post to this here:

    The difference between being responsive and too available

  8. Carly

    This is great info to know.

  9. Claire

    Thanks for this article, and the comments. Currently struggling with this exact issue so it’s really useful to read your viewpoints.

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