How to Be Unbusy

by | Jan 5, 2022


As the president of a successful multi-family office, I get tons of e-mails and voicemails every day from salespeople wanting to sell their products and services to our firm or our clients: investment managers, IT consultants, recruiters, HR consultants, private jet services, insurance agents, and the like. I don’t reply to these emails or phone calls — there’s just too many of them. Recently, I did pick up the phone and talk to an incredibly persistent salesperson who kept calling and calling and calling. He said, “I know you must be incredibly busy, but . . .” at which point I cut him off and said, “actually, I’m not busy and one of the ways I stay un-busy is that I don’t reply to unsolicited emails or calls — I don’t mean to be rude — I just can’t possibly respond to them and stay unbusy.” He responded, “wow, you are the first person I’ve ever spoken to who said he wasn’t busy.” He’s not alone — when people say to me “you must be busy” or “are you busy” and I say “no” they look at me like I have two heads.

Similarly, when I tour people around our office, I point out our “Zen Room” where I sometimes take naps during the day. People often respond incredulously, “you take naps – wow — how can you do that?” I guess the thought is that I should be too busy to be able to take 30 minutes out of my day for a nap or a bit of downtime.

It is a very American trait that most of us think we need to be busy all the time. How much we accomplish is a key measure of how we view our days and so we tend to tell each other how busy we are and how much we have to do. Our celebration of busyness is part of the American culture and hearing someone humble bragging about how busy they are is a common occurrence. The opposite almost never occurs — think about it — when’s the last time you’ve heard someone say they weren’t busy?

Of course, the root of the problem is that most of us are busy. We have long to-do lists and there is just not enough time during the day to get done all that we need to get done. So, we try to sleep less, work harder, be more efficient, and just do more. Our resolutions and goals are about what we want to “do” or “get done” or “achieve.”

I think there is a better way. Instead of trying to get more done, maybe we should just do less. We should say “no” more often.

My thinking on this is greatly influenced by two books: Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson (here’s a dynamite article by Mark Manson that explains the concept behind his book). Both books make the point that we should decide what is important (or essential), focus on those things, and say no to other stuff. In fact, you can be MORE productive by being less busy; focus on what you WANT to do and say “no” to more things (being “unbusy” doesn’t mean “unproductive).

As we head into 2022, imagine what it would look like if your main New Year’s Resolution was to do less, to be less busy, and to have more leisure time? To have the ability to take a nap when you wanted one. Read more books. Just hang out. Spend more quality time with friends and family. Be less stressed and rushed. Or to get done what you really want to achieve — write a book, hike the Appalachian Trail, or whatever. How would you achieve that? What would you need to say “no” to so you could achieve doing less?

Here are some tips for un-busying your life:

  • Block off “unbusy times” on your calendar. During these times have no meetings. Focus on what you want to focus on.
  • Give yourself permission to not be busy all the time. Even at work. It’s just not possible to put your head down and work for 8+ hours straight and be effective. Check out this IFOD on the benefits of “oscillating” at work — by working in shorter spurts you can actually be more productive and still free up some free time.
  • In a recent Forbes article, I wrote about how using money to free up time can increase happiness. Splurge on a cleaning service and lawn service. Use Instacart instead of shopping. Have more takeout dinners instead of cooking. All these things can reduce busyness.
  • Adopt the mindset that not being busy is a good thing. Allow yourself to have leisure time where you just do nothing and don’t feel guilty about it. Being busy isn’t a badge of honor.
  • Get off social media. It’s negatively impacting your happiness and is sucking time.
  • Adopt a meditation practice — it’s training in the art of non-doing.
  • Counterintuitvely, think about the fact that you’ll be dead someday relatively soon. I do this every day (here’s an IFOD on the benefits of this habit). It can help you focus on what’s important and not stress about the little stuff (and most all of it is little).

Postscript: I am sure that if my wife reads this she’ll think, “of course you aren’t busy — it’s because of all the stuff I take care of for you.” There’s truth to that too.


  1. There’s a lot to take away from this article. I’m not ready to take it away though. Thanks for sharing!

  2. That’s great advice, mainly for those who can afford to follow it. Not everyone has the funds to hire a house cleaner or lawn service. Not everyone can say ‘no’ very many times on the job without getting fired, unless they’d be extremely hard to replace. My dad had to work long, hard hours to take care of 8 children and a wife. My husband worked more than one job to pay the bills so I could stay home with the kids during their early childhood. Thank goodness, he was strong & healthy enough to do it! Neither my dad, nor my husband, wanted to be so busy. How could they have been unbusy? I could go into my own experiences of working at a college, but I won’t bore everyone with the details. I will say, though, that I would often eat lunch in my car in order to have some down time, otherwise, people sought me out even while I was in the break room. Not cool! That was my way of being unbusy without ruffling anyone’s feathers. 😊

  3. Fantastic thoughts. Thank you! I agree with these approaches.

    Essentialism by Greg McKeown is a book that had a big impact on me. A favorite. You may also enjoy Deep Work by Cal Newport. The premise of the book is looking differently at how work is accomplished, and honing your focus to what is truly important.

    For those in corporate offices whose calendar can be majorly disrupted by others, it’s a great suggestion to block out that time as suggested here, but also consider if it really needs to be a 30 or 60-minute meeting, must it be recurring, and do all of the attendees really need an invite? (See IFOD on Brook’s Law).

    I like your response to the sales call, and may use a similar approach in the future. It’s honest without being rude.

    Lastly, may I share this article with my minimalism group, who routinely discusses thinking about those things that add value to our lives: material items, time commitments, relationships, or otherwise?

  4. Brilliant — again! Great message that I’ve adopted in my own life.


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