is it better to be busy or have nothing to do?

Being busy or taking it easy at work. It’s a tough choice sometimes. I know that many people think it would be easier to sit in one place all day and do nothing. But it’s not. Another question is whether it would be better to be busy in short spurts, or better to be busy almost all the time. I’ve had my experience doing both as a consultant, and the answer is clear to me.

There’s nothing worse than having nothing to do. Nothing. I didn’t think that when I was younger, but doing anything was always better than having a full day with nothing to do.  Doing nothing all day isn’t fun, even if you are still getting paid for it. I have learned, through sad experience, doing nothing – no matter what the pay – is not worth it. Much of a professional life is made up of boredom and ennui. In fact, the main goal, at least in my opinion, of a professional life is to avoid such boredom and ennui.

If you are busy at your job count yourself lucky. If you are busy at your job, and enjoy your job, then count yourself doubly lucky. It’s everything to both enjoy your job and be busy doing it. Most Americans are one, or the other…or neither. The worst, of course, is to be neither busy nor to enjoy your job. This is, sadly, the fate of most corporate workers.

I’m lucky. I’ve done enough consulting work that I am able to select the types of projects that I want to do. Not everyone is like this. Many people have to accept jobs that either do not engage them, or do not keep them busy enough. I was like this earlier in my career, of course. But now I value this ability to stay busy more than almost any other aspect of a job. If the client can keep me busy for the better part of the day, I can absorb myself in my work and do a good job. But if a client tells me, well, we’ll have something to do for you next week, but for now just wait – well, it’s hard to stay motivated, and in fact I’ll likely end up reading the newspaper.  And since hippies don’t like the news, I don’t want to end up doing that, either.

I know it’s popular in blogger circles to talk about finding your passion. I know it’s a good idea, and I have like to think I can do the same. But the simple truth is that sometimes busyness can substitute for passion. Sometimes simply staying busy for the best part of the work day can be an adequate substitute for enjoying what you do. Of course if you’re making widgets, and you have to spend eight hours a day twisting a widget head on to a widget body, it’s not fun. But if you have a job that is marginally satisfying, and you can work hard at it all day long, that job is probably more satisfying than the more interesting job which does not keep you busy.

It’s counterintuitive … I know. You’d like to think that you need passion to continue working with fervor. But you don’t. Often, it’s enough to simply be working hard at something you tolerate. I can’t say that I love my client work. But when they keep me busy, it’s enough. The work’s moderately interesting, and frankly I don’t have enough time to sit around and think about what I’d rather be doing. Maybe I’d rather be building sand castles, or working on the next Great American novel, but the simple fact is I’m doing a good job and staying focused on the task and… getting paid.

So tried thinking about that the next time that you are looking for a new job. Focus on jobs that allow you to stay busy. Obviously, you should focus on jobs that utilize your skills and your abilities to the best possible advantage. But past that, you also need to find a job that allows you to stay busy. Trust me, in the long run you will be much happier.