Phillip Smith

Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much

Our ability to be fully present in the moment is our most rewarding capability

In a modern-day laptop there is enough power to edit a movie, mix a song, build the foundation of a successful business, or to write, design, and publish a novel. It is the creative equivalent of having a nuclear reactor that you carry with you. And yet, if we open that lid without clear intention, it is like staring into a black hole: a raw, unfiltered, and limitless sea of information so vast that it can easily steal hours from our productive lives.

I had been pondering this tension — the urge to turn to the laptop for creative production, and the danger of turning to it too soon — when I started reading the book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much.1 And, given that it’s been a while since I’ve done a book review, I thought I’d start up again with this one.

Our ability to be fully present in the moment is our most rewarding capability, allowing us to find real joy, to cherish moments and experience connectedness. Tony Crabbe, Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much

On my journey through the book, I realized that much of what I felt in my gut about my relationship to technology these last several years was born out by contemporary research. For example:

  • The author, Tony Crabbe, cites “Exploring the ‘Planning Fallacy’: Why People Underestimate Their Task Completion Times,” where researchers found that “We overestimate how much we can do, endowing ourselves with greater intellectual and focusing capabilities than we really have, and ignore all the contextual factors that could get in our way.” A topic I debated with my colleague Rob Purdie, the project management guru, back in 2006.

  • Crabbe goes further than my argument that time management is more important than project management to say that “that attention management is far, far more important than time management.” To back this up, he references studies that found “Multitasking can drop the performance of a Harvard MBA student to that of an eight-year-old,” and eloquently proposes that “Our ability to be fully present in the moment is our most rewarding capability, allowing us to find real joy, to cherish moments and experience connectedness.”

Last but not least, Crabbe points out research by Tim Kasser that found that those individuals “with a powerful focus on ‘affinity’ [being together] tend to enjoy happiness, health and mental well-being. On the other hand, the reverse was found with those who strove for popularity: they were less happy, more depressed and more anxious.” Kasser’s research is a great segue into the challenges of our contemporary, digitally-connected reality – which makes it easy for us to stay connected to ever-increasing numbers of friends. Crabbe contrasts studies on the impacts of social media on our lives against the idea of “Dunbar’s number” and concludes “that well-being, satisfaction and joy come from the 15,” those family, friends, and life partners that “trigger more flow experiences.”

Seems obvious, right?

Some might find it odd to learn that I’m reading a book about being busy. As a card-carrying “Slacktivist” who has written about slow e-mail, and who is known to not check e-mail on the weekends, many might assume that “busy” is not challenge that I struggle with. If only it were that simple…

Busy is the pull of that “urgent” but not necessarily important quadrant of life distracts from seeing the bigger picture. It is the constant interruptions that prevent us from finding “flow” in our work. It is a life so fully scheduled that there is no time for reflection. And, frankly, it is something that I witness almost everyone in my life struggle with, including first-and-foremost myself.

As someone who’s put a fair bit of focus on figuring out how to be less busy over the years, I wasn’t expecting to uncover many new ideas in this book — and yet it left me surprised with the amount of insight offered. Here are just two of many ideas in the book that were novel and useful:

  • After you’ve come up with one good plan, come up with two more (which are inevitably better than the first). Crabbe quotes Emile-Auguste Chartier who said “Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have.”
  • Make time to actively and deliberately worry, which helps avoid the challenge of worrying all the time.

Of course, some classics from my own repertoire were also offered up too:

  • Work in sprints. Some research suggests a 50/20 approach, I find that 90 minutes of focus followed by a 30 minute break works best for me.
  • To make that possible, I enable the “Do not disturb” feature of both my phone and my laptop. Checking for notifications more than 4-5 times a work day seems unnecessary to me.
  • Meditate, exercise, and eat a health meal first thing in the morning: then start the day.
  • Focus on the bit stuff first. If possible, I start the day by working on a large task, not responding to e-mail or attending meetings. My current schedule makes this pretty challenging because I’m collaborating with people on the east coast and Europe – and yet I still try to do at least 30 minutes of writing or reading before diving in to the day.

In sum, if you struggle with the plague of our time called “busyness,” it would be hard to find a better remedy — especially one that is such a low investment of time and money — than Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much. Kudos to Tony Crabbe for taking a well-covered topic and shining some new, researched-backed light on it. The chapter summaries are particularly considerate, given the target audience.

What are you waiting for? Go get less busy and reclaim some of your life! Or, in Crabbe’s words, “We will not lead completely happy lives unless we can be completely engaged in our activity; and quietly content in our idleness.”

  1. Reading on my Kindle of course!


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.

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