Escape The Busyness Trap And Get Down to Business (Essay)

Late one night I was studying and running through practice problems. You’ve probably been there too – when you instinctively know the answer to a question, but deep down you recognize that you only know the answer because of some very superficial context clue. In reality, you have no idea what the answer actually means, just that it satisfies the question at hand. You can study to pass a test, or you can study to understand the information. There’s a difference.

Years ago (in the pre-smartphone days) I used to carry a physical calendar around in an effort to stay organized between multiple freelance jobs. “Where do I have to be next,” was a very common question. Today, that’s a mix of my Outlook calendar for work and my Reminders app for home stuff / to do lists. Like the answer to the question that I know but don’t understand, sometimes I find myself booked so densely that I wonder what this busyness business will actually produce. I can fill up my calendar, or I can get stuff stuff done that makes a difference. There’s a difference.

We all “know” that knowing the answer doesn’t always mean understanding the answer, and busy does not necessarily mean productive, yet I see myself and many of my friends, coworkers, and peers crawling bleary-eyed out of this trap all of the time.  We’re all doing a lot of stuff, but how is it actually helping us make any progress? How do we slow down for the right reasons? There’s a Bill Gates quote that says, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” How come it’s so hard to tip that estimation scale back into balance with the right activities in the right places?

Shane Parrish at Farnam Street wrote a post titled “Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying ‘No’ to the Non-Essential,” and he nailed this detail: “Velocity and speed are different things. Speed is the distance traveled over time. I can run around in circles with a lot of speed and cover several miles that way, but I’m not getting anywhere. Velocity measures displacement. It’s direction-aware.”

I can zip through studying with speed, but stopping to dive into a poorly understood concept is the only way to achieve velocity. I can fill up my calendar, but unless I understand the context of each item deeply – NOT superficially – I will not achieve velocity. I’m not doing this to run in circles, I’m trying to get somewhere.

The key to directing our efforts at the change we want to create in the next 10 years is in understanding the difference between speed and velocity as it relates to our activities. If we get it right, that awareness can change the way we answer questions and how we build our schedules.

The first step is awareness.

Cal Fussman tells a story about how and when he lost touch with technology. It was in the 1990s, he was setting up an email account, and things just weren’t working, so he called customer support. Over and over again they walked him through the steps, “your name, @ your company’s name, .com” Over and over again he tried, and still, no success, only failure. WTF. Finally, he figured out his mistake. As embarrassed as it was to admit, he had been typing out “dot com” the entire time, instead of “.com”

What followed (in his life) was a gap between him and using technology. It had made him feel dumb, and since nobody likes to feel dumb, he just started avoiding it. Paraphrasing his words, “the guy who was once the fastest at typing in his journalism class had been reduced to one-finger texting on his phone,” and it was all because of writing “dot” instead of using a period.

If speed is how fast we are going, and velocity includes the direction and distance that we are covering, Cal’s life kept moving (he had speed, he was really busy), but the velocity of technology was getting farther and farther away from him. He stopped keeping pace.

Understanding just speed and velocity isn’t enough. We also need to be aware of this concept of pace.

We can look at our own pace. We can measure ourselves against our own checkpoints and milestones. We can also look at our pace compared to others. We can choose to keep up with (or not keep up with) the Kardashians (or the Jones’). When it comes to others, we introduce competitive and non-competitive measurements too.  Sometimes we care if we are “winning,” while other times we are just helping our group along.

People, projects, events, etc. – they all have their own speeds, velocities, and paces. Ask: Are we in lockstep? Are you leading? Are you lagging? Am I? Are you going with the flow or fighting upstream? What about us collectively? These all become significant factors to be aware of.

If we want to make a difference, if we want our work to matter, then pace becomes a central focal point, alongside speed and velocity. When we approach a person or a project, some of our first questions should be to understand where they are, how they got here, where they are going, and what speed and direction they’re currently headed in. Before we can change or alter anything, shouldn’t we at least try to understand this much? I think so. Speed, velocity, and pace are all part of understanding the question of “why” and the logic for how it gets answered.

If you can stay aware of pace, then you can also try to avoid slipping behind. For Cal, despite a heavy nudge from Tim Ferriss to start recording his podcast, it took him almost two years to do it. Why? His fear of feeling dumb over the “dot com” incident. Fortunately, he committed to closing the gap, figured out the speed and velocity required to catch up, and now we get to hear him converse with the Kobe Bryant’s and Seth Godin’s of the world. All it took was that awareness and acknowledgement. It can be a big step, but it’s an essential one. Again, “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years,” that it won’t matter if our mistakes make us hide from our potential progress, “and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten,” that putting in the work could trigger a new chapter our lives.

Once we start looking for it, we can find examples of speed, velocity, and pace everywhere. Once we start labeling it, we can put it into practice, reduce the busyness, and maximize the business.

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