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The 3 Stages of Busy

Last week I ran into a younger colleague who said he had a conference deadline that week and could we get together next week, maybe? So I contacted him on the weekend and asked if he was free. He responded:

This week quickly got booked after last week’s NIPS deadline.

So we’re meeting in another week. That’s busy for you: after one week off the grid, he had a week’s worth of pent-up meetings! I thought I was busy, but it’s nothing like that.

And this made me formulate my idea of the 3 Stages of Busy. It goes like this:

Stage 1 (early career): Not busy, at least not with external commitments. You can do what you want.

Stage 2 (mid career; my friend described above): Busy, overwhelmed with obligations.

Stage 3 (late career; me): So busy that it’s pointless to schedule anything, so you can do what you want (including writing blogs two months in advance!).


  1. Sean says:

    I think “not busy” is interesting. I often feel “busy”, though I admit I’m probably not. I think it’s largely because of inefficiencies and spending extra time where it’s easy to spend time (it’s easier to spend time polishing lecture notes for that extra half our than it is to pick at research). I hope to learn to pack more into the same amount of time.

  2. Martha says:

    For women in my age cohort in STEM fields, Stage 1 tended to have a lot of external commitments, because of the well-intended-but-not-carefully-thought-out tendency of administrators in the early seventies to try to make sure that every committee had at least one woman, and often an early-career woman was the only one available. I remember one particularly awkward situation where I was appointed to a committee to evaluate senior people (which included no women) — but junior people were not supposed to see the files of senior people.

    I hope the situation is better for young women now, but it probably is still pretty bad for African Americans and Hispanic Americans.

  3. Moreno Klaus says:

    I am currently in mid-stage 1, and very afraid of stage 2, since I am not a workaholic…

  4. Essayist Tim Kreider had an interesting take on “the busy trap”:


    If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: “That’s a good problem to have,” or “Better than the opposite.” Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet.


    • Andrew says:


      I clicked on the link. I’m not saying Kreider is wrong, but he’s not telling us anything new, that’s for sure. He concludes his essay with the super-cliche’d statement that nobody on their deathbed has ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

      Sure, Krieder describes himself as lazy (in his words, “I am the laziest ambitious person I know”), but recycling cliches is a bit too lazy, no?

      Maybe he can follow this up with a column explaining that life is all about the journey, not the destination, and that we should stop and smell the roses.

      • I see your point, but I would consider the essay to be a good example of what you call the Chris Rock effect: “Chris Rock says things we all know are true. But he says it so well that we get a shock of recognition, the joy of relearning what we already know, but hearing it in a new way that makes us think more deeply about all sorts of related topics.”

  5. I’m amazed at how much work goes into a computer science conference paper submission these days. Probably because that’s the main currency for getting jobs—how many NIPS papers do you have? Papers and especially conference papers were quite a bit more speculative back when I was a junior faculty member (mid-80s, natural language processing). Nowadays, the amount of work required for a viable NIPS (or ACL) submission is approaching the amount of work required of a junior associate or partner at top law firm levels.

    I simply opted out of the game. I found it quite stressful by mid-career (mid 90s) when I had a pile of grad students, grants, curriculum, on top of actually still needing to teach and try to get research done. It’s hard to do a good job on any one of those responsibilities, much less all of them. Especially while dating! When combined with my getting on an airplane on average once per month to go to conferences, workshops, or other universities for talks, I often felt overwhelmed.

    I intentionally set up my life after that to avoid getting too busy, first at Bell Labs, then after a short stint as a production C programmer at SpeechWorks (it always takes more time learning things and trying to keep up when you’re an apprentice hoping to become a journeyman (journeyperson?)). We maintained a reasonable work-life balance at our company, Alias-i, because we turned down business we thought would be too stressful — we turned down lots of contracts, but we were happier, if a bit poorer. Then I had a blissful first year working on Stan with almost no e-mail, no grant writing, no paper writing, no users to support, etc. I told everyone it was like being a post-doc again, only without the job-seeking worry. And now I’m back to being overwhelmed with things to do. Our to-do list for Stan is now many many person-years long. Just doing triage on priorities is time consuming!

    • I really admire Bob’s career path; actually, I was considering a move to Carnegie Mellon to work with Bob on a PhD in Linguistics in 1997 when he told me he was quitting and moving.

      Now, having become a full professor (so, at the terminal stage 3; after that comes the abyss) I realize that a large proportion of my “job time” is wasted time. The top time wasters are repeated interruptions in my office, having to teach long hours (including preparation time) with no visible return on investment, huge amounts of time spent trying to deal with reviewers who don’t know anything about anything (“this experiment is just a replication of the previous one and so should be removed from the paper because it doesn’t add anything new”; “but the experiment whose results you are contesting was published in a major journal by a famous scientist and/or had a very low p-value”) but insist on pissing all over your research either because they think that’s their job or just to protect the credibility of their scientific claims, attending pointless meetings where either nothing happens or the decisions have already been made behind the scenes, and the constant and expensive search for funding.

      The only thing that keeps me here still is the total freedom to define my research problems. I used to work in a law firm in Japan as a patent translator, so it’s not like I haven’t experience being a “sarari-man “; that was definitely the worse option. So for me at least, maybe academia is as good as it gets in terms of intellectual freedom and the sense that one is doing something that’s worth one’s time.

  6. jrc says:

    Wow. I had no idea Columbia professor were THIS busy. I got this today, but I applied two years ago!

    “Thank you applying for the recently advertised position of Assistant/ Associate Professor- Applied Microeconomics (Finance and Economics Division). Columbia University receives many applications from highly qualified candidates for its academic positions, and our search committees review each carefully to find a candidate whose strengths best match our needs. The search committee that reviewed your application was impressed with your background and accomplishments. However, it has identified other candidates whose credentials make them better choices for this position.

    We appreciate the time and effort you put into your application and we extend our best wishes on your search for a position that will take advantage of your many strengths.”

    A lot better than my last referee report! Plus, I was already pretty sure I didn’t get the job!

  7. Joachim says:

    As an early-career researcher, I must object most strenuously to your characterization of Stage 1 as “Not busy.”

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