Productive Busyness

Gareth I. Jones
6 min readMar 28, 2023

Feeling busy can validate us, but it’s another trick we’re playing on ourselves.

Photo by Melanie Vaz on Unsplash

I rant about that networking virus a lot, sorry about that, but another thing I really detest about the way we behave in that situation is the verbal crutch of talking about how busy we all are.

The problem with this one is that it spills over into our social life too. I kick myself every time I start writing “yeah good but busy mate” in a WhatsApp response to friends asking how I’m doing.

Sometimes this is a validation trick. If we tell people we’re busy then they will think we’re doing well. People who aren’t in demand aren’t busy, so it must mean something is working.

I don’t think this is manipulation or misleading, I think it’s what we think is true.

We all constantly feel busy, this is life.

This was keenly felt for many of us during lockdown. We wrote a What if everyone could walk to work? paper which was talking about all of the time we were saving during 2020 by not having to commute, or move around to get to meetings. But it didn’t feel that way, it felt busier than ever.

As a social entrepreneur, leader, founder, or really anyone who wants to be productive, you need to be in control of this part of your brain — be on the lookout for when it is taking over and listen out for signals.

All we have is this moment, indeed it is all we ever have.

We have to question whether how we choose to use this moment will have positive consequences for weeks to come or not.

This isn’t about every moment of your life being fully productive and positively consequential, but that you have enough of those moments in the day, week or month that compound and create things that pay back over time.

It’s why I hate emails.

Why I Hate Emails

Emails get you stuck in this moment, they’re disruptive, they feel urgent, and they can create a day’s work in reading a 30 second note.

To grow our business, or our cause, or achieve our mission, we need to think in longer time cycles than just keeping busy today and dealing with that which is on fire.

We live in a longer now. The Clock of the Long Now theory by Stewart Brand talks about the six time scales:

  • Fashion
  • Commerce
  • Infrastructure
  • Governance
  • Culture
  • Nature

Fashion, which often encompasses art, is the space where things move and change quickly, but equally can drift away from those ideas fast. They’re not set, and anyone can put new art or stories out there which can alter the fashionable thinking of the moment.

As you move up the chain, the systems are harder to influence and slower to change. Once we get to nature, we have very little influence and no immediate feedback loops. When change does happen, it’s very hard to course correct, as we are seeing in this moment.

Putting out a new fashion today doesn’t mean infrastructure or governance changes tomorrow, but it might in years to come, by which point there will be a new prevailing idea in vogue.

The paradigm shift needs to exist in many peoples’ brains for it to become true change. This has to go through phases of awareness, understanding, amplification, and advocacy to reach a critical mass. New media makes this easier, but still not instant.

It’s one thing I hate about modern politics. Too often it feels like the only goal is to achieve power, like it’s a validation. The excellent This Could Be Our Future by Yancey Strickler sets this out better than I ever could by talking about living our life in 30-year cycles.

We don’t need to achieve everything tomorrow, but we need to have a vision for what we are looking to change. Then, after we have spent the time and done the hard yards getting that vision out there, that is the moment to enter politics to complete the final stage of the job.

Lower Your Expectations

There’s a point at which you realise you can’t get everything done.

This doesn’t have to mean slacking off, but it’s important to be more patient. Move away from trying to do three big things every day, and realising you might only do three big things every year.

I found this realisation quite liberating. If you keep achieving three big things every year, you can get a lot of compound value after a couple of years or decades.

Whenever I speak to founders, I think there’s a sense that you can achieve a lot quite quickly.

We all overestimate how much we can get done in the short term and underestimate how much we can do in the long term. This quote is attributed to many folks but still stacks up.

The challenge as a founder comes from when we don’t see the immediate positive feedback in the short term, so we bail out before seeing the longer term value.

If you can focus on thinking in terms of longer time frames, you can be far more productive.

Be Prepared

There’s a lot in this around preparedness. Sometimes doing the least important, least on fire thing in this moment can lead to great and very positive outcomes down the line.

In first aid training, an important instruction is to ignore those that are screaming loudest and focus on those who are silent.

It’s very hard to do this in practice, but it is essential if you want to build a business for generations to come.

This is why we do our “What if…white papers. They’re never urgent, we never have someone waiting for us to get them out on time, but if we do it right we can create value for the future which will pay back again and again.

Our What if everyone could walk to work?paper was transformative for us, it got us into different conversations and raised awareness of what we stand for. It was never the most important thing for us to focus on or spend money on, but it was the right thing to do.

Boiling Rice

My final point here is based on cooking a good meal.

In our work there are many of these jobs that will pay back if we get them out of the way early. It’s like the idea of making a nice meal, and then realising you forgot to put the rice on twenty minutes ago. That small job which you could forget about and focus on other things but which pays back in the future.

There are jobs that we can do now which will keep paying back, and if we try to get around to them later on will delay things and cause more disruption.

When prioritising your tasks, think about the ones which can boil away in the background and pay off down the line.

A good example of this in practice is that deeply frustrating customer service experience in coffee shops. If you order your drink and the barista goes away and makes it, then deals with payment, you’re adding 10–15 seconds on to the queue. If this happens for every customer, you’re adding a minute to every four customers. The alternative is to set up the payment while the barista is away making the drink, so by the time it arrives you’re free to go.

What elements of your process can you do earlier, or prioritise in order to save waste down the line?

Bonus Final Final Point

This one definitely is my final point, what I can’t explain in this long drawn out article, the singer/songwriter Jeffrey Lewis does a far better job of. Here’s Time Trades, sit somewhere comfortable and savour every second.

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Gareth I. Jones

Founder of TownSq, focused on building communities of entrepreneurs, supporting startups and B Corps - businesses that are better for the planet.