I have thought a lot over the last 3 years about the differences between ‘productive’ and ‘busy’. The two have become so synonymous in anglophone culture that it’s difficult to distinguish between the two. Apparently, Robin Hanson found a better way than I have in doing so in his book, ‘The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life‘.
If you read beyond the highlighted text, you’ll get to the phrase – the ‘conspicuous effort’. Where doing things is done for appearances, to demonstrate that things are being done – regardless of how useless or even damaging they are.
We’ve all seen this so many times; few of us seem to understand it. In the Navy, we talked about ‘busy work’ – never be idle when Master Chief is walking by because as squared away as you think you are, Master Chief will find something for you to do. So we made a conspicuous effort. Better to be doing something than have Master Chief find something for you to do.
Later on in life, with a few decades of work experience behind me in the corporate world, I was focused on my productivity. To be productive as a software engineer, running through permutations in my mind of how something I was fixing or creating would be used and what could go wrong, I would go for walks. My manager at the time caught hell from the executives about seeing me walking around the parking lot, they thought I should be at my desk and hammering things out because that is how they measured productivity. By conspicuous effort.
Meanwhile, I was more interested in doing it right the first time, and with few exceptions, I typically did. Only one thing I wrote actually broke things at that company and it was such a reach that no one understood how my code could have broken anything (it was a compiler problem that I traced in assembly, but to explain it to them). Everything else was solid. The fact that I wasn’t the one getting mentioned all the time for writing buggy code was something that they didn’t notice; the walks in the parking lot were something they saw as being unproductive. If only they knew, or could understand.
I’m surrounded by people who are making conspicuous efforts even now – and some think I should be making a conspicuous effort. Someone will tell me that I need to do this or that with my land immediately, expending effort and resources to simply look like I’m doing things. They’ll look at the pickup covered in mud and dirt and think I should be washing it every day (when I know it will get dirty the next day).
We have a finite amount of time on the planet. We have a finite amount of energy in our bodies – when we’re young, we think otherwise. There’s only so much we can do.
Wasting it on useless conspicuous effort… is wasting it. And it can do more harm than good.
Be productive. That keeps you busy enough. Trust me on this.