Opinion, advice, and analysis by the TNW community

Here’s what it really means when you say ‘I’m busy’

Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten
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Boris Veldhuijzen van Zanten

CEO and co-founder, TNWBoris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and (show all) Boris is a serial entrepreneur who founded not only TNW, but also V3 Redirect Services (sold), HubHop Wireless Internet Provider (sold), and pr.co. Boris is very active on Twitter as @Boris and Instagram: @Boris.


Boris is the wise ol’ CEO of TNW who writes a weekly column on everything about being an entrepreneur in tech — from managing stress to embracing awkwardness. You can get his musings straight to your inbox by signing up for his newsletter!

It seems that saying ‘I’m busy’ has become a badge of honor these days. If someone asks you whether you’re busy the expectation is that you’ll say ‘Yes, very!’

If you were to reply ‘No, not at all’ that would be cause for concern. You’re not busy? Are you okay? Are you sure? What’s wrong?

So what exactly defines ‘busy?’ If you ask me to do something that takes only 30 seconds, and I say I can’t do it because I’m busy, surely you’ll argue that I’m just making excuses, and nobody can be so busy they don’t even have time to do a 30-second task. I know I certainly have a hard time accepting it when I get that answer.

Truth is, most of us are too busy for a 30-second task, and here’s why you shouldn’t feel guilty about it.

What ‘I’m busy’ really means

Every morning I check my calendar and to-do list and decide which of my goals I want to achieve and then I focus on completing them.

I might have five goals in total, but I’ll focus on the one or two most important ones. I also have 15 or 20 less important smaller tasks. But if I want to get anything done, I’ll ignore those so I can focus on the main one or two.

One layer below that are 100+ even smaller tasks. These are all the 30-second tasks that have accumulated over time. I consider most emails part of this.

At any given time I still need to either delete, forward, or reply to 50 or 100 emails, and I’m ignoring them to focus on the bigger to-dos I have on my list.

Imagine being a person who is waiting for me to reply to an email (some of you might be, sorry in advance!). It’s just one small question, and wouldn’t take more than a minute to answer. Now imagine me saying ‘Oh, I’m sorry I was too busy to reply.’ Surely you’ll be surprised, even annoyed, that I can’t even find one minute in my daily schedule to reply to you.

But I can’t. I’m too busy, and looking into even one email is going to screw up my schedule and workflow.

See, as soon as I descend into the lower levels of my task list, I now have to decide on 100 smaller tasks, and which ones to pick. Just rummaging through the second and third level of tasks is more time consuming than I can afford, if I ever want to achieve my larger tasks. It’s also difficult to keep your eye on the bigger goals when you’re surrounded by tiny tasks.

The effect of this will be that you might find me sitting on a bench, staring into the distance. I’ll look bored, or even catatonic. What I am is ‘busy’ — I’m working.

I’m thinking about a strategy, a problem, a large task. I’m using all I have for a brain, and every ounce of creativity I have to solve a problem efficiently. And while I’m doing it, I’m ignoring everything around me.

Just a few weeks ago I was sitting next to a fire when my girlfriend joined me. The sun was setting, we had a cup of tea, and she had brought her book. She asked me whether I also wanted to read my book, and seemingly absentminded I mumbled ‘No, I’m working.’

It was her laugh that made me snap out of my train of thought, and then I laughed too, because what she saw was just a guy sitting next to a campfire staring into the distance. But I was really doing some of my best work, right there in that moment.

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Published July 30, 2020 — 15:00 UTC