Reclaiming Our Right To Think


We’re all busy, very busy. We all have to do lists, things we need to get done at work, at home and even at play. Our to do lists include the repetitive, the obligatory, even the mundane, but no matter what, it all needs to get done.

Or does it?

We’ve organized our lives increasingly around tasks and decreasingly around intention. Our head is bowed in self-restricted thought as opposed to cocked, gazing upward in wonder and curious contemplation.

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world...That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact, and that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you and you can change it...
Once you’ve learned that, you’ll never be the same again.
— Steve Jobs

We learn to keep our heads down early on. From childhood we follow others’ agendas. We learn how the world works as though it’s an absolute as opposed to a natural evolution in understanding that's based on trial and error. We learn there’s a “right” way to do just about everything: think, behave, communicate, work, feel, even a “right” way to spend our time. We’re even implicitly told that there is such a thing as the “right” friends, lifestyle and activities. 

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
— T. S. Elliot

We’re taught a whole lot about the how and never much asked about the why of how we do what we do. The message we receive is that we shouldn’t worry our little heads about how a given method or belief came about but that what matters is that we learn the “proper” method or the “facts” because contemplation is superfluous once we know the answer to a problem.

We grow up to understand that productivity is more important than effectiveness. To be busy is to make the most of the time we have available to us, to avoid any potential for waste. To be busy is to be a good person. Idle hands are the devil’s workshop, are they not?

It’s time to question this belief.  

The problem with making an extrinsic reward the only destination that matters is that some people will choose the quickest route there, even if it means taking the low road.
— p. 51, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Busyness is nothing more than a distraction, a way to stay in line because going against the grain just causes trouble. After all, questioning what others consider a given makes them uncomfortable so we learn we’re better off to just keep chugging along thoughtlessly. We spend years learning this lesson, thanks to the awkwardness of the silence that accompanies a student’s “stupid” or question a challenge to a general rule a teacher is introducing to a class. Just do the work, get the grade and move on. It’s all that matters.

Unfortunately, this belief stays with us for a lifetime offering the illusion of purpose and leading us to dismiss the importance of personal growth in all aspects of life.

Busyness is the new escape.

Most knowledge workers avoid the uncomfortable strain of deliberate practice like the plague, a reality emphasized by the typical cubicle dweller’s obsessive email-checking habit—for what is this behaviour if not an escape from work that’s more mentally challenging?
— p. 208, So Good They Can't Ignore You by Cal Newport

Busyness is the new drug of choice because it’s a shortcut to personal validation. Busyness makes us feel useful, worthy, important, irreplaceable, and too busy to ask hard questions of ourselves, of others and of our world. We don't consider why we do what we do. We’re happier following orders and requests—both our own and those imposed by others—than questioning whether they’re worth following and completing in the first place.

Busyness makes us dumber.

Education is a lifelong journey whose destination expands as you travel. The desire and hunger for education is the key to real learning.
— Jim Stovall, The Ultimate Gift
One of the surest ways to recognize real education is by the fact that it doesn’t cost very much, doesn’t depend on expensive toys or gadgets.
— John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down

Thanks to the push toward extrinsic motivators in the school system and in the workplace, one of the important lessons we learn is that learning for the sake of learning is a waste of time. Why put in extra effort if you’re already making the grade? Why learn how a method came to be when it’s faster to simply google the fast-track answer or procedure? Why bother spending time on critical thinking and method evaluation when everyone else spends their time in the realm of the "good enough". Why bother doing the hard stuff when we can count on the rush of feeling productive with quick hitters alone? We get points for getting to dos done and done quickly, not for our thoughtfulness in their execution. And thoughtfulness can’t be easily measured, rendering it irrelevant.

Busyness makes us dependent. 

This was once a land where every sane person knew how to build a shelter, grow food, and entertain one another. Now we have been rendered permanent children. It’s the architects of forced schooling who are responsible for that.
— John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down
Self-reliance is the antidote to institutional stupidity.
— Dumbing Us Down by John Taylor Gatto

Our incessant focus on being productive keeps us from trying something new, from doing something unfamiliar. Trying or learning something new is hard. It’s frustrating. It feels slow. It makes us feel we could be doing so much more if we were doing something we already know how to do instead. That feeling of lack of productivity and speed of completion leads us toward specialization and performing rote activities and away from self-sufficiency across many disciplines.

Doing what we do best and outsourcing the rest in the name of productivity makes us dependent on others for everything that’s not “our thing”. And, the more time we spend avoiding learning something new, the more difficult it is to do so. The only reason it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks is that the old dog hasn’t been a continuous learner.

Busyness makes us less effective.

People are effective because they say no.
— Peter Drucker
The overwhelming reality is: we live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.
— p. 45, Essentialism by Greg McKeown
[T]he richest experiences in our lives aren’t when we’re clamouring for validation from others, but when we’re listening to our own voice—doing something that matters, doing it well, and doing it in the service of a cause larger than ourselves.
— p. 146, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

In our quest for productivity, we’ve lost track of why we want to be productive in the first place. We want to be productive because it feels good to accomplish things in life. What we’ve forgotten is that what we choose to spend our time on needs to trump how much we get done.

Doing the repetitive and meaningless leads to boredom and shortcuts. It leads to apathy and a lack of caring. Conversely, doing what requires focus—doing what’s hard—leads to a better product in the end (this applies to both the work and the individual). Doing what’s hard is extremely gratifying. We feel invigorated, rejuvenated, proud and increasingly capable.

Successfully accomplishing what’s hard makes us believe that we can tackle other hard things. It expands our comfort zone. It expands our knowledge of current and new areas of expertise and makes us all-round better problem solvers. Good problem solvers are what employers really want, despite the fact that they often reward speed of response over quality of response…until a service breaks down and forces a refocusing around quality.

How can we be spending so much time on the unimportant?

The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to live a life of purpose.
— p. 145, Drive by Daniel H. Pink

Despite strong evidence that much of our busyness doesn’t represent the best use of the time we have available, this behaviour enables us to shirk our personal responsibility to think for ourselves. It’s far easier to cross off meaningless tasks than it is to start asking ourselves the hard questions. If it weren’t, we would never accept our society’s widespread complacency. We’d never accept equating our personal worth with doing what we should do as opposed to doing what we believe is important in making our lives better.

It’s hard but essential work to check in with ourselves on a regular basis in all aspects of life. We need to ask ourselves the hard questions and act on our answers:

To discern what is truly essential we need space to think, time to look and listen, permission to play, wisdom to sleep, and the discipline to apply highly selective criteria to the choices we make.
Ironically, in a Nonessentialist culture these things—space, listening, playing, sleeping, and selecting—can be seen as trivial distractions. At best they are considered nice to have. At worst they are derided as evidence of weakness and wastefulness.
— p. 60-1, Essentialism by Greg McKeown
If you have correctly identified what really matters, if you invest your time and energy in it, then it is difficult to regret the choices you make. You become proud of the life you have chosen to live.
— p. 237, Essentialism by Greg McKeown
  • Work: Do I like what I do for a living? Why? Why not? What might I prefer instead? Why? If I like what I do, do I take the opportunity to tackle the hard problems or tend to put them off to do what comes easy? What can I stop doing in order to tackle the tougher problems?
  • Life: Does how I spend my time reflect my values? Do my daily/weekly/monthly tasks move me in the direction I know I want to go? Where are the gaps? What should I not be doing?
  • Relationships: Do my relationships energize me? Drain me? Do I have strong friendships? Do I spend most of my time with people I care about and who care about me?
  • Personal Growth: Do I spend time on personal growth? Do I satisfy my curiosity when I think there’s something I want to learn? If not, why not? Does how I spend my time and money reflect a desire to avoid trying or learning something new?
  • Personal Obligation: How much of what I do feels like an obligation? How likely am I to regret continuing on with obligations as opposed to spending my time on activities that are more in line with who I am and/or want to become?

Busyness distracts us into leaving the status quo unchallenged. We’re so absorbed in our busyness that we forget to look up once in a while, to ask why. We forget we can make a difference. We forget to be aware. We forget to act with purpose. We need to remember what we once knew.

Image credit/copyright: Master isolated images/

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