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.