The smoke seemed to have a mind of its own. Filtering from the owner's cigarette one table over, it conjures images of a snake-charmer playing a flute. It seems to defy physics in how it dances through the air.
The bar was ever-so-slightly slightly too dark for what we were trying to do, the main source of light filtering through Chinese-style red paper lanterns as we were poured through the financial ledgers.
A long pause sets in, we're almost done and getting through the last 10% is taking an effort.
The waiter tells me that the coffee machine is broken and that they're out of chicken pies. Okay, water is fine then, thanks.
We finish going through the ledgers. I'm tired, but not like my two long term friends here. They're both entirely worn out.
We chat a little bit before packing up. It's getting near 2AM and one of my friends has to be up in four hours to play golf. He's been on the go nonstop, just returning on a business trip from India, and he has a number of sets of meetings in the next few days.
My other friend is also extremely busy, but he sets his own schedule. His business has grown faster than he expected over the last few months, and he's still doing a majority of the core tasks himself. They're piling up at a rate where he can't clear them at a sane pace.
You can see the worn lines on each of their faces in the smoky, red-lantern-filtered light, looking older than late-20's. The little details are lost to the smoky air, but the most noticeable is the hard set jaw. "Constantly gritted teeth" isn't quite the right explanation, but it's the... skeptical frowning expression that seems to carve those lines out. And even when joking around, it's joking like someone in command - not the totally loose silly reverie that keeps people younger.
We talk through each of our last week, the next upcoming one, and we set another meeting for Saturday dinner. As we're hammering out the details, something occurs to me -
These guys both can say, "I'm really busy lately" - but it means two largely different things.
The first is an executive and he has a long string of meetings, travel, phonecalls, and places he has to be at specific times. He is reviewing his girlfriend's new 18-page contract that's written in a mix of Chinese and English tonight before he can sleep, golf at the crack of sunlight, meetings in the early morning, checking with in his various staff, and then maybe getting some breathing space around noontime. The afternoon will be slightly less packed, but still quite a lot.
The second has a huge mix of email, opportunities, numbers he has to look at, customer support, development, bug fixes, dealing with the bank... he also has 3-4 marketing channels he wants to not take his eye off the ball with, even while customers are streaming in quite a bit faster than his initial conservative projections. And unfortunately for him, when his customers buy is proving to be particularly erratic - getting a huge set of orders one week, and then having a quiet week or two where he wonders what's not working, and then having a huge push come at him again.
As the snake-charmed smoke winds the bar, I reflect on the "really busy" thing. Neither of these guys rep it as a badge of honor, they're not particularly proud or boastful when they say it. They are both, indeed, really busy.
It goes quiet again, we sit there halfway zoned out. I take a sip the lemon-flavored water. Hmm. Perhaps these two kinds of "I'm really busy lately" are actually different kinds of busy?
The first one could be said to be "physically busy" - every individual task isn't particularly hard for my executive friend. Travel, meetings in India, socializing with people, golfing, checking in with his reports, reading his girlfriend's contract, picking up his dog at the kennel, travel to Shanghai, more meetings, reports, and so on. The major issue is that his time is blocked out and spoken for in huge chunks already - so finding time to decompress and relax on his own time can be tricky. Oh, and finding time to sleep.
My entrepreneur friend, on the other hand, is not "physically busy" - in that he still largely sets his own schedule, and works where and how he wants to. He's arguably got half as many daily commitments as my executive friend - it might only require 6-8 hours of solid work to keep everything in order business-wise, whereas the executive might literally have 10-16 hours each day spoken for and blocked out.
No, in his case we could call it "psychologically busy" - the challenge is to do self-directed work where it isn't intuitively obvious what's really important, what's time sensitive, and what should be prioritized. The things he's got to do range from trivial and rote tasks, to dealing with unpredictable aggravation (the bank keeps screwing something up, it needs changing which will require spending time on the phone and perhaps on hold), to very high level technical work or very high level expansive-thinking marketing.
This particular executive's "really busy" is one where he's having a hard time finding blocks of time in his schedule for anything he wants to do. The entrepreneur's "really busy" is one where he's looking to find blocks of clear thought to do what's important.
It seems like these are two different things that call for different approaches. Perhaps the executive's busy calls for finding a way to get a lot of relaxation and recharging in a short period of time. That might even be doubling down on how commitments are scheduled for a few days in order to take a 3 day vacation with no work at all.
The entrepreneur's busy seems to require stopping fighting fires for a bit (even as the building seems to be burning down) in order to build processes, operations, and remove the most rote tasks.
For the executive busy, it seems to be physical bandwidth that he's up against the limit on. He just doesn't have time for himself, and it will - eventually - probably lead to breaking down. None of the tasks are individually difficult for his skills and makeup, but he needs to carve out time somehow.
The entrepreneur busy is limited by mental bandwidth - while it seems like, in theory, another couple hours could be layered on... in reality, the block here is having enough clear thought.
Interesting. This deserves more thought.
"Fu-yen, my dan." The bill comes. I take out some renminbi and reach for the check when the executive speaks up. "You didn't buy anything, Sebastian."
Ah. I guess I didn't. I'll get an iced tea and some hard boiled eggs at 7-11 on the way home. I'm looking forward to getting six hours of sleep in.
Spot on insight! It's a not-so-obvious thing, and I'm so glad you've pointed it out. Often in the past I've felt guilty for putting off time with my girlfriend to deal with the psychological tasks. With this post in mind I can now make sense of it better.
For anyone who goes through periods of being "psychologically busy," it might be helpful to think of them as billable hours. If you set aside particular blocks of time AND keep detailed records of what you do when dealing with the psychological business end, it becomes less ambiguous. Writers sometimes set particular blocks of time in which to write, with a particular goal of x words written, and note where and how they'd like to continue development when they return to what they write. By so doing, the task of writing becomes a clear process, less up in the air, and feels somewhat "more legitimate," EVEN TO THEMSELVES! Drucker, right? "What gets measured gets managed." If it works for writing, why not art, why not entrepreneurship, why not for whatever psychological business you have to deal with?
Treat psychological business the same way you do physical business. Build the infrastructure for it. That way, it won't bleed into other areas of your life.
Yeah. And what about us who are in both camps at once? Physically stretched to the limit by external pulls, and psychologically busy -- not able to get the chunks of time needed to really make headway on a big project.
I am arbitrarily taking this Saturday as a "big chunk of time" day for long-term, important stuff. Meanwhile, the howling wolves of my international tax law practice are noisy. Back. I will attend to you on Sunday.
Good post. The impact of the "psychological busy" is subtle and immense. The lure of the "physically busy" is apparent -- someone out there loves me! They want to shower me with money! This must be resisted.
Really good thoughts here. I can relate to being "psychologically busy" but it's funny how a lot of people don't quite get that.
It seems to be more personal when you tell someone you're busy when you make your own hours. Maybe because they feel like they've been "blown off" since you could always rearrange your schedule. Obviously, it's not that simple. Great to have a term for it. I also wonder if there's a better approach to it, rather than the approaches taken for being physically busy.
I'm listening to an autobiography of Octavian, the man who went on to become Augustus Caesar.
What's interesting from the book is that Augustus had more patience than his various rivals of the day in large scale affairs and reforms, but he moved with serious haste - celerity - when there was a situation that could be settled decisively.
Around six years ago, I started paying more attention to business and entrepreneurship and generally success and things like that. I remember coming across a lot of literature that encouraged doing things faster - especially in business. Shaving off the shipping time from 7 days to 4 days. Things like that.
Back then, I didn't understood why there was so much emphasis on speed. I thought, "Okay, obviously you wouldn't want to go too slow, but why go so fast? Why does it matter that much?"
And more recently, the answer has been clicking. It's not that getting your package 4 days from now instead of 7 makes such a big difference in all cases. Much of the time, it doesn't.
My post before this was a kind of therapy / Buddhism / personal growth kind of deal, but I also spend a lot of time thinking about how to run effective teams and to be a responsible, thoughtful manager of people. It is my work: I am a lead engineer at Bungie, an independent video game developer of about 300 employees (though not for long, we're growing.) There are some unique aspects to making videogames, and I'll use game development terminology here as I refer to, say, texture artists or sound designers or programmers, but when I talk to friends in different creative industries - film, industrial design, other software development - I find these themes are pretty universal.
If you're going to manage people, you're going to have a lot of conversations about employee performance. It's just bound to happen. Sometimes, like during reviews, it might seem excessive. You might wonder if's worth all the time it takes. It is. It's OK that you spend a bunch of time on this. As a manager, that is your job. It's your job to have well-formed opinions about how you evaluate people and how you work with them to help them grow. If you aren't spending time on that, then you may be succeeding as a leader, but probably not as a manager. Apples and oranges.
It is, however, important to spend this time well. During conversations about performance, everything you talk about should boil down to one thing: the value they contribute to the team. What is their value, and how can they become more valuable?
I find a lot of review conversations tend to focus on strengths, weaknesses, and specific work results. These seem like reasonable topics, and there's value there, but I also find this often leads to a review that looks like this: