David Lose: Life Pitfalls: Confusing Busyness with Meaning


I've written a short series of "Leadership Pitfalls" over the last six months, but decided that this one might be better classified as "Life Pitfalls," because while it certainly is something leaders fall prey to, I think it's also something to which we are all prone and can sap much of the vitality of the lives we've been given as gifts.

And this "life pitfall" is quite simple: confusing keeping busy with leading a meaningful life. Actually, I'd go even further and say that we can also confuse getting things done with leading a meaningful life, or even achieving goals and living a well-lived life.

This last one is hard for me to admit, as I am ridiculously goal-oriented. (And what's even more ridiculous is that it wasn't until I was in my forties that I even realized that.)

What's wrong with having goals, you might ask, let alone achieving them? (Okay, so I'm the one asking.  :) )

Nothing. As long as we don't equate achieving them with living a meaningful life. They might contribute to a meaningful life, be a part of a life well-lived, even make the world a better place so that others have more opportunity to live meaningful lives. But achieving goals is a means, not an end.

And that's what I sometimes forget. Sometimes comically, as when a relatively new friend and I admitted to each other that we like making to-do lists primarily for the satisfaction of crossing things off and will even, when we realized we'd already done something that was not on the original list, add it so that we can immediately cross it off and get that pathetic rush of adrenaline that only the truly goal-achieving - okay, okay, goal-addicted - personality can experience.

And here's the thing: I'm not even remotely a Type-A personality. Honest. Ask anyone who knows me. I'm relatively laid-back, rarely worry, spend as much time as human possible with my family, and love what I do and both enjoy and value the people with whom I get to do it.

Yet I still get caught up in the treadmill approach to life all-too-often that values the present moment in term of what I'm getting done. Oddly, this doesn't affect me longer term. That is, I don't sit back and evaluate the previous year or decade in terms of accomplishments (or, depending on the year, the lack thereof). Rather, it's the present moment or day in which I habitually try to squeeze in as much as I can.

"Habitually" is probably the key word here, as I usually don't even notice it. But I know just how long my commute is, and so will habitually work on a blog post or email or getting the kids ready for school or whatever it might be until just the last moment when I can leave the house and get to whatever meeting awaits on time. And when I get in the car, I habitually listen to the headlines on NPR news for a few moments to keep up with what's going on, then turn on a podcast to get me thinking, and then shave (electric razor) because - what the heck, why spend 15 minutes at home when I've got an hour in the car and there are few things easier. Okay, so I know that last one is terrible to admit because it's dangerous and probably illegal, but I swear a) I'm safe, b) I never, ever do it when anyone else is in the car, and c) I wouldn't even admit to it if I hadn't just sworn off the practice for good. Honest.

So where did this ridiculous and habitual - okay, and at this point its probably time to add "pathetic" to the list of descriptors - penchant for keeping busy come from?

I honestly don't know. But I have a hunch that I'm not alone in this quest of absolute efficiency (that's what I like to call it) in the pursuit of worthwhile goals. Which makes me wonder if this condition isn't somewhat of a pandemic and the causes are floating around in the cultural air we're breathing these days.

Mad Men was the first long-form fiction - that's what I like to call multi-season narrative television (like The Waking Dead, Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, True Dectective, etc.) because, well, it makes me feel better than just calling it watching TV - in which I immersed myself (and, yeah, "immersive television" is my term of choice over binge-watching because, again, it just sounds better). Anyway, as the program launches into its final season it occurs to me that this confusion of busyness with meaning might be a by-product of the hyper-consumerism that the ad-industry helped launch a half-century ago.

I mean, the key to keeping an economy ever more dependent on consumer-spending growing is to convince us that our lives our incomplete - that we ourselves are incomplete - unless we attain more. More...whatever. Shoes, computers, apps, square-footage in an apartment or house, elements to a resume, articles published. It doesn't really matter. It just needs to be more. And it's not that any of these things is necessarily bad in and of itself. In fact, it's not really about the "stuff" at all; at least not for long, because once we possess it - again, whatever "it" is hardly matters - we now have it and it's no longer more, so on to the next thing. (Which means that, ironically, in our pursuit for more, we end up devaluing "the thing in itself" that we want more of in the first place.)

In this sense, "more" has become the ultimate end in itself, rather than a means, and the quest for more has come to substitute itself for a meaningful and well-lived life to the point that we might argue - with our actions if not our words - with Jefferson and contend that among our inalienable rights is "life, liberty, and the pursuit of more."

In this consumption-oriented culture, time has become one of these commodities. Indeed, one of the most valuable, as the time we have it inherently limited. And so we remind ourselves that time is money, to be valued not in and of itself but as something we can spend - foolishly or wisely - in the pursuit of goals. And so we - okay, I! - have succumbed to thinking that the "more" I can squeeze from my time the better I am doing, the better life I am leading.

"Be still and know that I am God," the Bible says. "Sounds good," I want to reply, "but has God seen my calendar...let alone my inbox?!?"

Which leads me to suspect that there's another reason for the hyper-busyness (and, honestly, I really am reasonably laid back!) to which I fall prey, and that's because the constant activity allows me to avoid making priorities and therefore making decisions. I mean, as long as I think I can do everything - and of course I know I can't but you wouldn't know it on some days - I don't have to decide what matter most, I just keep pursuing everything with equal vim and vigor. A rolling stone gathers no moss...and needs to make no hard choices either.

But what if I decided to stop and smell the roses. Actually, that's not the best metaphor, as it doesn't really take all that long to smell the roses. I've tried it. You can pretty much just slow and just roll down your window. So let's say instead that I decided just to stop. To choose two or three things to do and spend more time with colleagues or family or friends doing...well, pretty much nothing...because when I look back, it's usually all those "nothing moments" that I remember most. If I did that, I'd then have to ask a series of questions that lead to some potentially hard decisions: how important is this task? Can some else do it? Is this meeting worth my time? Does email matter as much as I think it does? Should I really try to write two blog posts today? Or even one?

And along with those questions my habitual answers race back: of course it's important, or you wouldn't have put it on your list. And it's easy to say email doesn't matter, until someone gets mad you didn't write back. And if you don't post regularly, folks won't read as often. And on and on.

None of these answers is definitive of course. They've already assumed the value-set I'm trying to question. But definitive or not, they are often persuasive.

So what to do? Particularly when my job requires that I get a lot done. And other people benefit when I do. And I benefit when they tell me they appreciate it. And on and on.

So another question, perhaps one more to the point just now: am I the only one struggling with this? Because I don't think I can figure this one out myself. The tug of the allure of getting things done is too strong and my resources and strategies for combating it too meager - I'm saying this while flying to a set of meetings where much will be discussed and nothing accomplished, while listening to classical music (makes me feel "cultured"), and am hoping to get two posts written and catch up a bit on email. But perhaps together we can figure this out, or at least encourage each other along the way.

It's not that I think it's an either-or. I am fortunately to be able to do a lot of cool things and contribute to getting some things one that seem to make a difference. And I bet you are, too. So I don't think it's hyper-busy or zen meditation 24/7. I think instead it's about being a tad more mindful (and, honestly, I kind of hate that phrase, maybe because I'm not that good at it) about the choices we're making. So I'd be interested in your experience, your wisdom, and your counsel. Leave what you want to share in the comments (please not more email  :) ), and while I may not comment back, I promise to make the time to read it.

From David's blog, "...In the Meantime"