While heading home from picking up a pizza, another driver sped up and swerved in front of me.
It’s a fairly busy stretch of road with two lanes going each way. I kept watching this driver weave in-between the other cars in front of me, sometimes signaling, other times not. Moments later, they slammed on the brakes at a red light.
I got to that same light about five seconds later, having stayed in one lane, traveling the speed limit, and leaving ample room between myself and the car in front of me.
This isn’t a story about bad drivers or being considerate on the road.
Think about the number of decisions the driver had to make to change lanes five or more times in that stretch of the road we shared.
Each time, they had to judge the distance between themselves and the other cars to avoid an accident. They had to decide if they felt it was necessary to signal, how fast they needed to go, and how soon they would need to change lanes again.
What were they thinking about as they worked to thread themselves up through traffic, trying to get ahead just a little bit faster than everybody else?
Were they annoyed? Nervous? Focused less on the current moment and more about where they were headed?
For all that effort, all they gained was five additional seconds spent waiting at a red light.
Did that satisfy whatever desire motivated them?
When we worry about optimization
Regardless of their exact circumstances, this driver wanted to feel like they were headed toward their destination as fast as possible, even if it didn’t get them there any faster.
They wanted to put their effort into optimizing speed in the moment instead of looking for ways to get tangible benefit.
Sure, you could race between cars to make it to a red light a little faster than everyone else, or you could find a way to get in your car and start driving a few minutes earlier.
We can’t be certain that any one change will definitely result in a better outcome, but we can try to put our behavior in line with better possible outcomes by focusing on actions that are more likely to matter.
It’s easy to confuse action with progress
It’s the difference between being busy and getting meaningful work done.
If I spend my time color coding a bullet journal, or arranging a cascading hierarchy of tags in a task manager app, how long will it take for those actions to show substantive improvements in the way I do necessary, rewarding work? Are they a layer of distraction, or a tool for focus?
How many passes and revisions can I make on a set of pages, or a blog post before all I’m doing is making things different instead of making them better?
The siren’s song of optimization is like pressing your foot a little harder on the pedal. You’re feeling acceleration, but you’re not necessarily reaching your destination any earlier.
But how do you tell the difference?
The tasks with meaning aren’t always obvious, but they never lie to you after they’re finished.
Busy tasks always try too hard to assert their importance, like a compulsive liar who peppers their speech with admonishments to “trust me.”
They shout at you that these five life hacks will help you finally clear your inbox…
But the time you spend reading that article could be used to answer two or three of those emails, or asking yourself the question about how necessary is it to reach Inbox Zero.
You could look through a gallery of dozens of great new themes for your website…
Or you could grab a pen and some paper and start coming up with new content to put on that site.
You could read all about how people whose success you wish to emulate schedule their day, or what bullet journal notebook and software they use…
Or you could do work with the tools you have and the time you have, and test things to see what works for you.
Busy work turns time into an I.O.U. where you promise yourself that you’ll eventually get around to what matters.
Meaningful work leaves something behind. It transforms time into something tangible that you can point to.
Shout it from the rooftops: I did this. I made this. It is here now where it wasn’t before.