The overlooked benefits of making yourself busy

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About a year ago at this time, I was really busy. I was in the home stretch of wedding planning, preparing for a cross-country move from Chicago to San Francisco, and managing the usual full-plate I have at work—writing code for DoneDone, supporting our HR product, KinHR, as well as a few of the consulting projects we own at We Are Mammoth, Inc.

I look back on that period of my life with fondness. While life was busy, life was also full. At day’s end, I was exhausted, but completely satiated.

I remember other periods of time like that one too. When I wrote The Developer’s Code, I didn’t take a sabbatical from work; Rather, I found time on weekends and the occasional evening to expand my workload just enough to make progress on the book daily. On a few Saturday afternoons, you might’ve found me with my laptop at a coffee shop, putting in the extra hours I couldn’t fit into the work week to get the book completed. But, like last year, that period of time felt much the same—exhausting but completely satisfying.

Happiness at work is a hot topic nowadays, particularly with the rise of remote working. But, often, the only metric we use to analyze this is the amount of time we work. Books have been written to ensure we make distinct and healthy separations between work and personal life, as if the consistent 8-hour day (or 4-day work week) is the key to a fulfilling work life.

A recent New York Times article discusses how some people in Silicon Valley are trying to maximize time efficiency by replacing meal time with protein shakes.  One software developer whips up a shake called Schmoylent (sounds appetizing) so he doesn’t have to leave his desk to eat at all during the day.

I’ll admit, this is an extreme case of time management. But, the metric of time spent working is only one factor—and, I believe, not even the most critical factor—in going to bed at night feeling good about the work you’ve accomplished today and the work you’ll embark on tomorrow.

I believe an even greater factor in work/life happiness is a healthy variety of work. Looking back on a few very busy times of my life, what made those otherwise-exhausting days great was that I was taking on several divergent activities at once. My brain wasn’t focused on one arduous task all day. In comparison, I’ve had other periods of my work life where I’ve been overcome with stress and fear. When I look back on those times, they weren’t necessarily correlated with an overwhelming amount of time spent working. Rather, it was that I was solely consumed with one thing.

When you’re consumed with one big thing for an entire day, all the successes you’ve had with it start to numb, while all of its problems and stresses surface. This only makes sense—once you’ve succeeded at one task-at-hand, you move on to the next problem you need to solve.

When you have a few things to work on, you can partition your time so that you’re exercising your brain in a few different ways throughout the day. Each new task feels fresh, and you tend to reacquaint yourself with the progress you’ve made since you’ve been away from it for a bit. Also, when you limit yourself to the amount of time you have to finish a task, you stop breaking up your “one big task” with distractions. The distractions are replaced by working on different and meaningful tasks.

So, how do I do this if I only have one pressing thing to work on right now? I write for this blog. I look for small backlogged refactoring tasks to make DoneDone’s codebase just a little bit better. I consider documenting processes that could benefit from a bit of formality. Most importantly, I make these tasks as important as any other, so that I’m filling my day with a variety of purposeful work that would otherwise never get done because I’d only tackle them when I absolutely ran out of work to do. And, that day isn’t coming anytime soon.

Is being overly busy a bad thing? Certainly, we need to balance the actual time we spend doing work with sleep and living the rest of our lives. But, don’t overlook the importance of variety in your work—even if that translates to spending that extra hour a day exercising your brain in different ways.

Ka Wai Cheung is the original creator of DoneDone and author of The Developer’s Code. Follow him personally on Twitter via @developerscode and read more at Life Imitates Code.