Are you busy today?

Engineering notes from a 1978 engineering project.

Engineering notes from a 1978 engineering project.

The other day I ran into my friend Brian. “How are you doing, Brian?” “Over worked and underpaid. Terribly busy, this is my peak season you know.”

Almost everyone I know gives me a paraphrase of that same answer. It’s been the standard answer for at least a hundred years, and maybe through the entire history of Western Civilization. There’s always more to do than there is time. The boss always has something extra that needs doing. The family is always asking for something, and you know that the house and yard absolutely need to have that spring maintenance work done! Soon!

I don’t like the “So busy!” response. It’s too easy and really doesn’t say anything. Kind of like: “Hi, how are you?” “Fine.” The answer bears no relationship to what’s happening in life. Our culture seems to demand that we be busy and fine. Sure, there are people who claim to not want to hear an “organ recital” from this old man, but sometimes “Fine” just isn’t the right answer, and if one of us needs help, advice, or an ear to bend, another answer is the right one.

That said, the main thing that irks me about the “Busy!” answer is that the opposite is probably the worst thing that could happen to a person.

Here’s my story:

This was a long time ago, within a year or two of my taking a job at IBM. They had hired me for a major project, and they even had to move us to a temporary expansion site to make room for all the new people on this project. Then the project was cancelled. If I remember correctly, there was some new technology that was essential for the product. The new technology failed, so that called the entire project into question.

The management team and lead architects had plenty to do. They had to come up with a complete new design, pronto! The marketplace wouldn’t wait for us, so every day without the new product meant dollars left on the table. They were burning the candle on both ends to try to figure out what to do.

And what about us peons? The little people? Those who didn’t know much. We waited. Every now and then one of the managers would come to us with a simple question that would take a couple of hours to answer. Outside of those couple of hours, we waited. Drank coffee. Read magazine. Swapped stories.

This was awful. Even with nothing to do, we had to come to work in the morning. This was in the day when IBM had strict start and stop times. So we came into work and got to our desks right at our start time of 8:06. And we left on time at the end of the day, and took our 42 minute lunch break on time, too. The sad part was that there wasn’t much to do in the eight hours in between. On a good day the manager came in with a work item that would last until shortly after lunch.

We were eager engineers and programmers. We didn’t want to sit around. This was hell. Our briefcases had magazines in them, not project schedules. We read those magazines, not product specifications. We went for coffee, not to meetings. We devised new games to decide who would buy the next round of coffee, not to resolve tricky design problems. The only benefit of the slow work days was that we got to know each other pretty well.

This situation lasted about three weeks or maybe a month. It was the single worst episode of my career. Once the project got restarted we were several months behind. Sitting around for a month can do that. We immediately went into over time and shift work to get everything done on time.

Computer time was at a premium in the early seventies. We were at a remote location. This was years before the Internet. Our computer screens were text only, no graphics, and the connection to the mainframe computers back at the main site, across town, was incredibly slow. The screens didn’t show much, 1920 characters on a good day, and we could watch the letters appear on the screen one at a time. That was a disaster! It didn’t take more than another couple of weeks to get that problem improved. The updated connection meant that the text updated in just a couple of seconds instead of a minute. There was still no comparison to today’s internet connections.

Did I mention that nobody had computer screens in their office? We had to go down the hall to a terminal room, then wait for someone else to finish their work before we could sign on and start working. As a microchip designer I had a lot of simulation runs that each took twenty or so minutes to run on the mainframe computer. Each simulation run was customized, submitted and recorded so that when the paper printout came back a couple of hours later I’d be able to know what to do with the data.

We soon figured out that the way to get the best results was to come in at three o’clock in the morning to pick up the results of last night’s runs, spend an hour or so fixing the issues, the restarting the jobs so they’d finish before everyone else came in at 8:06. Our managers were kind enough to let us do that. Best of all, we got a little extra pay for arriving at work on third shift. To further improve our productivity, we’d go to the main site, on the north side of town, and work from a terminal room up there. That avoided the slow computer communications lines and waiting for a bus to deliver the printouts to the remote location.

There was one other incredible benefit to coming in that early and going to the main site. In those days (I love saying that!) the company cafeteria baked its own pastries. The cooks would show up long before three AM and have fresh-baked pastries ready to go by five or so. That’s when we’d take a break and run down to the kitchen to get fresh rolls, before they were even packaged for distribution to the machines.

There’s a certain camaraderie to working in a situation like that. We loved it, even though the early arrival did make us a little grumpy. We appreciated knowing that it was better than sitting around with nothing to do.

That has driven my comeback to the “I’m so busy” response. Often I’ll use a friends business to spark a conversation about how terrible it is to have nothing to do — bored. Inactivity and boredom are a good thing, if self driven and for a limited time. I love a short meditation and reverie, but give me something to do! Let’s create something! Let’s have a deep conversation about what’s happening in our lives. Let’s go for a walk and see the world. Sitting at work with nothing to do is the epitome of waste.

Call me for coffee and let’s have that conversation.

Grandpa Guy Havelick