Over the years, I have realized that my mind is a pool of copious ideas from varied fields. It is like an open pond, extremely prone to ripples from externalities, big and small. There was a time when I picked every idea up and started working on it. I would spend weeks on these side projects. Soon, there would be a new one vying for my attention and I would hop onto the new hustle.
I have begun and shuttered so many of such side projects that I have lost count of them now. Some new platforms that solved no new problem for me. An open-source utility which I understood nothing of, except for the fact that its source was open. A self-hosted service that I had no use for. And the list goes on and on.
My fascination towards such unending projects affected me in many ways. The most troubling of them was that I had no time to pause and listen to my thoughts. I lent myself no time to not be busy, to slack. Here's Shane Parrish reiterating the importance of slack to be productive in our lives (as defined by Tom DeMarco in his book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency).
Many of us have come to expect work to involve no slack time because of the negative way we perceive it. In a world of manic efficiency, slack often comes across as laziness or a lack of initiative. Without slack time, however, we know we won’t be able to get through new tasks straight away, and if someone insists we should, we have to drop whatever we were previously doing.
That is precisely the state I found myself in. I was too welcoming, with my arms spread, ready to embrace anything and everything that got recommended to me. Even a mention of such a topic, and I was all ears.
I no longer do that. Anytime I am faced with such a ripple now, I take a deep breath, blink and calmly say, "no, I do not have time for you. You, even though curious, are not my priority."
Priority is an important word that governs how we lead our life. I recently learnt that when the term "priority" was coined (somewhere in the 1300s), it was singular. It stayed that way for ages. Decades. Centuries. It was only in the 20th century that we, new age humans, muddled the meaning of the term.
By definition, "priority" means "the quality of being prior". The prior one. Basically, the stuff of priority is one thing that should get all your attention.
Then we changed the meaning of being efficient. Doing things as a group, per the plan, within time mattered no more. Each individual had to be manifolds more productive, pick up more things to do in parallel. And in our quest to do more in parallel at all costs, we introduced the plural form of the term "priority". We started thinking about those 2 or 4 or 10 things that we could divide our attention among. We assigned numbers to them. "This is priority 1. This is a P2 item."
Think about it - the usage of the words "topmost priority" itself is so redundant. If you call something a priority, it should get your special attention. It should be the thing of the highest importance.
I have realized the hard way that more often than not, doing less is doing more. When I am not doing many things at the same time, my attention is not spread too thin. Being busy and being productive are two different things. David Perell puts it nicely, contrasting these two distinctive states of mind.
Our best ideas rarely come alive in busyness. They spring to life in calm and aimless contemplation. In beer mode, you find inspiration. And in coffee mode, you harvest that inspiration.
The choice of words "calms and aimless contemplation" is so brilliant. That's what saying "no" to most instinctive side hustles, not always staying busy, allows me time for. I calmly sit idle for hours at times, contemplating on stuff that I read, hear and see. I take notes, jot down thoughts to elaborate on later.
Here's Parrish again, reminding us of the drawbacks of being constantly busy.
Being comfortable with sometimes being 0 percent busy means we think about whether we’re doing the right thing. This is in contrast to grabbing the first task we see so no one thinks we’re lazy. The expectation of “constant busyness means efficiency” creates pressure to always look occupied and keep a buffer of work on hand.
Amen. Could I, then, do more if I didn't hold myself back and said "yes" to more things? Maybe. But then, more is not always better.
Cover Artwork by Ken Cheung on Unsplash