“If you want a task done quickly, ask a busy person to do it.”

That quote has been around since at least the 1850’s. I heard it a while back and immediately rejected it as nonsense. Then it kept bugging me for another week or two, so I tweeted about it.

I got exactly 3 responses, and they’re all fascinating:

The assumption here is that busy people are do-ers, and non-busy people are watchers. And you’d trust a do-er with your task more than a watcher, even if the do-er is busier. Seems reasonable to me.

It’s not the busyness itself that makes a person a good choice for your task. It’s that busyness is usually a trait of a do-er. If you could somehow find a do-er who wasn’t busy, that would be ideal. But do-ers by definition tend to be doing stuff.

Ouch. Too real. The quote is from a bygone era, meaning it dates back at least 150 years. So that part is correct. But were people spending their time on more meaningful tasks back then? Did deep work vs. shallow work exist 100+ years ago like it exists today?

They didn’t have Slack, Zoom, email, or even telephones to fill up their days with shallow work. So it seems reasonable that “busy” back then meant something more than it means now.

Then again, they couldn’t use computers or robots to automate the monotonous parts of the job. Maybe “busy” 150+ years ago meant manual number crunching and hand writing and paper folding?

I’m not sure, and my Google searches about this have ended in frustration. Anyone have any insight?

I didn’t expect Parkinson’s law to make an appearance when I tweeted that. But that’s the thing about Parkinson’s law; it likes to sneak in when you don’t expect it.

The more time you have for a task, the longer it takes. If you want something done quickly, give it to someone who doesn’t have much time for it. I love that interpretation.

What do you think? Is this quote a relic, or is there still some wisdom to be had here? Tweet me and let me know!

search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close