You’re not as busy as you think

Takeaway: We tend to overestimate our busyness levels and the number of hours we work by incredible margins.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 2s.

Busy

As I wrote about this past August, people often look to how busy they are as an indicator of how productive they must be. The flaw with this outlook is that when your actions don’t lead you to accomplish anything, busyness is no different than laziness. At the end of the day, productivity is about how much we accomplish. This is why productivity tactics like the Rule of 3 are so powerful.

I recently stumbled across a study that compared how many hours people thought they worked every week with how many hours they actually worked. The difference, the study discovered, was staggering. People who thought they worked 60-64 hours a week actually worked an average of 44.2 hours (17.8 hours less); those who claimed to work 65-74 hours a week clocked an average of 52.8 hours (16.7 hours less); and those who claimed to work more than 75 hours actually worked an average of 54.9 hours (20+ hours less).

On average, people overestimated the time they worked by more than 18 hours. They weren’t nearly as busy as they had thought.

I find myself falling into this trap all the time. Whenever someone asks how I am, I often talk about how “busy” I am, as though I’m wearing my busyness as a badge of honor. In reality, talking about your busyness levels is really just a way of telling someone how much the world needs and depends on you.

If you want to discover this trap for yourself, try keeping a time log where you track, in 15 or 30 minute increments, how you spend your time over a given week. (Seriously, try this next Monday. Here’s a time tracking template I talked about in my book that will help you do this.) Like me, you’ll probably be amazed by how inefficiently you spend your time; how frequently you procrastinate and work on things that aren’t important. Maybe you’ll also discover that you work fewer hours than you originally thought.

We can resist falling into this busyness trap if we recognize our bias: that we have the tendency to overstate how busy we are, and overestimate the number of hours we work.

The takeaway here is a vital one: despite how busy you may feel, you’re probably not as busy as you think. You may have more free hours in the day than you originally thought—it’s just that you’re spending that time on work that’s less important and meaningful than what you ought to be doing.

  • Great reminder that most of us aren’t as productive as we’d like to think we are.

    For example, it’s easy for me to say I’m too busy to write a blog post some days. But I’m a good enough writer that I can put something together in 15-20 minutes.

    Is it going to win any kind of award? Probably not.

    Will it be life-changing? No.

    But the point is that I can make progress. That’s something I need to keep in mind for the future. And if writing is my most important task of the day, I should do it before I let other non-important tasks get in the way.

    I think part of the reason why people overestimate their working time is that they’d like to think they were working more than they actually were. That’s kind of an outdated way of thinking though. We should be more focused on getting results than putting in the hours.

    Anyways- thanks for the post Chris!

  • Flower Violet

    This is so, so true. I’ve been using Toggl to track how I spend my time and it is astonishing. It seems like most of my day is eaten up by minutiae- walking to lectures, making coffee, shopping for food etc.
    It’s also surprising to see how I long I spend on some things. Writing a blog post usually takes me 6+ hours. It’s not that I procrastinate whilst doing it. Even if I’m sat in an empty part of the library with nothing but a pen and paper, it still takes that long.
    Could you post about being more efficient when it comes to writing blog posts? or what your work flow is for them?

    http://www.rosieleizrowice.com

  • I have been talking about Laura Vanderkam’s book to anyone who will listen. My time log was so eye-opening. Knowing that I would have to record “wasted 15 minutes on Instagram and Twitter” made me keep it to just 15 minutes!

  • Nick

    So I’ve just started the time tracking and I have a dumb question. I’m working in 30minute increments this week, say it hits 9am, I’m guessing I do nothing, then at 9.30am I’m back filling what I did from 9-9.30am? Or is it 9am, what am I doing right now? Same question goes for energy logging but I imagine it’s the same.

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