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.

11 Replies to “is it better to be busy or have nothing to do?”

  1. I remember reading Candide in high school and I was struck with Voltaire’s conclusion at the end of the book. Man is happiest when he is working.

    The last few days I’m been on doctors order not to work and it’s actually much harder than I thought it would be. I can only watch 3 episodes of Merlin and then I feel like I need to research something useful.

  2. I left a very busy (and sometimes frustrating) industry for the public sector about 18 months ago. I am bored at my new job. Where I had a dozen projects on the go in my old job, I’m lucky to have one or two in this job. But the funny thing is, when I AM busy at work I love it. But those 15-20 hours a week don’t make up for some of the days where I literally do nothing all day.

    Makes me wonder if the entire public sector is built this way, draining the ambition from all of their employees.

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t understand how people can ever be bored. I had a job where I had about 15 hours a week of dead time for a while, and I spent that time writing stories and generating a small side income from them. I can’t remember the last time when I truly had nothing to do.

  4. @Cara

    Well I say “nothing”, which means I was doing nothing work related. In my down time I have started my own blog, write articles and interact with other bloggers. Note the time of this comment 🙂

  5. I must agree with Cara, I also have plenty of down time at my job but I am never bored. I can either find personal things to do or job related tasks to make my work more efficient and interesting when I am very busy.

    With so much great reading out there, both fiction and non-fiction, plus the World Wide Web at our fingertips, I can’t imagine ever being bored……

  6. I don’t Steve (of BripBlap fame) didn’t mean bored because there was nothing on the web to read, but rather, a lack of work directly associated with the reason you are actually being paid

    1. Exactly, Evan. If I had a job where I was able to do anything I wanted during downtime, I’d never get bored either. I’d open up WordPress or put my feet up on the desk and read my Kindle. If any of you have a job where you’re able to work on personal things during downtime with no negative consequences and still get paid, then you are quite fortunate. I’m paid by the hour so my clients have the expectation of at least an appearance of industry, and most places I’ve worked have enough IT security that you can’t simply spend all day on WordPress and Facebook without getting noticed. If I could, I doubtless be posting much more on this blog and replying much more quickly to comments!

  7. Insightful post, and very true! I have had the experience a few times of working hard on a project (so that it would be behind me and I could “relax”) only to find myself bored and chomping at the bit for the next wave of work. I look forward to days off, but often find myself restless. I suppose being productive is part of being fulfilled, at least for me. Thanks for a thoughtful post (and a great blog).

  8. Interesting post. But I have to disagree with staying busy at ‘work’ is a good thing. It really depends on your perspective. I may be a bit different – but my goal has always been passive income over employment income. I have seen both – I am a young professional consultant (worked up to 70 hrs/wk), but also have started up businesses on the side. So, I’d much rather not be busy at my FT work – as I can direct energy and focus to other ventures during my downtime. This is the ideal situation – you are winning both ways. I personally think the problem with people who think ‘doing nothing at work’ sucks – is that they don’t have enough things going on outside of work that motivatiestriggers them to create value in their personal life (be it businesses, investing, or personal passion or hobby). Just my two cents.

    btw, very interesting blog..Im just starting to make my way around it. Cheers

    1. MStar: good point. But I think you’re confusing doing a lot of work with “being busy” work. I agree: if you have a lot of work, 70 plus hours per week, it’s hard to do much else. I was simply talking about times when you are very busy during an eight hour day. I’m also talking about a situation which you cannot work on outside ventures while at a client, or an employer. of course you should have many outside interests besides work. If you don’t, of course, you’ll be bored at work and outside work. But many lawyers do not allow you to work on outside projects while at work.

      But you make a great point. If you are able to work on something else, you should have something else that you are able to work on. if you don’t, your day will be boring, for sure.

  9. Doing no-thing is just no-fun at all…. like the old saying goes “an idle mind is the workshop for the devil”? I’ve always found this very true, and usually I feel all-around gloomier when I’m not busy with a new project I happen to find exciting. Also, like someone pointed out in the previous comments… boredom is a condition that only affects those who lack imagination to think of something interesting or worth doing.

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