Deadlines suck. Even those that are self-imposed. So, I'm sitting here in my office, busy as a bee, getting as much done as possible.
Here's the thing: bees don't actually work that hard. We're under the impression that bees are hard workers because we see them flitting about from flower to flower collecting pollen to make honey for themselves, for curious bears, and for us. But, somewhere along the line, we've confused the work of the individual bee with the work of the hive.
It takes a lot of bees to make honey. Here are some stats from the Golden Blossom Honey website: One single worker bee will only make about one and a half teaspoons of honey in its lifetime. To be fair, making that honey will require visiting a lot of flowers, something like 50 to 100 during every pollen-collection flight. But it takes the whole colony to create enough honey to both sustain the colony and provide enough for us to harvest.
Which means, while the hive might be busy, the individual bee is not; Sam the bee is not under any quotas, nor are they under any deadlines. They just step out of the hive, visit some flowers, and get back home in as efficient a manner as possible.
You see the point I'm trying to make. We're all way too damn busy and for far less welcoming environments than your average beehive. But don't take my word for it, Google "working too hard" and then schedule a meeting with your boss. More seriously, the glut of productivity tools available in various app stores points to the idea that people have more work than they know what to do with, mainly because so much of our work is just busywork or because so many of our processes and methodologies are inefficient.
When I was a student, busywork was the bane of my existence. I liked to read and had a novel with me, more-or-less always. It was pretty easy to tell which teachers I liked and which ones I didn't based solely on their reactions to me finishing my work and pulling out said novel. It turns out, effective management does the same as the teachers I liked: when a worker has finished their assigned tasks, good leadership will either allow the worker to work on assignments of their own choosing, or will have engaging, optional tasks that the worker can take on.
Busywork, somewhat ironically, actually lowers efficiency. Workers become demotivated to finish tasks early and / or well if they know there will be low-level, unnecessary tasks assigned upon completion.
Relatedly, more and more research is showing that multi-tasking is a fallacy and attempting to do so also lowers efficiency. In other words, to quote Ron Swanson:
Business Insider suggests that we spend up to five hours (of a typical eight-hour work day) doing things other than working, including socializing and reading the news. Which makes sense, given that the current breakdown of the day into 8-hour shifts was brought about by labor conditions during the industrial revolution. Basically, businesses needed to run their factories 24-7 and we're demanding 12-14 hour days from their workers to do so. Which is, well, not sustainable is the polite way to put it.
As Busy as a Bee
Cambridge English Dictionary: be (as) busy as a bee: to be about doing many things
Merriam-Webster Online: (idiom) very busy and active
The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins:
“For aye as busy as bees been they,” Chaucer wrote in Canterbury Tales (1387), the first recorded mention of the phrase. But bees must have been noticed busily collecting nectar since prehistoric days and no doubt the expression was used long before Chaucer’s time.
NTCS American Idioms Dictionary:
(as)busy as a bee
(as) busy as a beaver.
(as) busy as a cat on a hot tin roof
(as) busy as a hibernating bear*
(as) busy as a one-armed paperhanger
(as) busy as Grand Central Station
(as) busy as popcorn on a skillet
*actually means the opposite
Notable Events of the Year 1387
You’re reading Learned, a weekly newsletter about words and language, written by me, Joel Neff. If you like what you see, please consider subscribing:
I really wanted to put in today's essay but just couldn't quite shoehorn in:
Robert Heinlein on specialization:
A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
Douglas Adams on deadlines (as seen in Learned Vol. 1, No. 24: Procrastination Station): "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by!"
Ugly Kid Joe on busyness:
Next time: Good grief. That's it. Stay strong, stay curious. Learn something.