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Busy vs. Productive

“What is the gravest crisis facing the American people in the year ahead?”

CBS news asked its panel of “distinguished commentators” that question at the end of 1961.

Most of the answers were predictable, given the era. Most said the Cold War. One said East Berlin would provoke a new military conflict.

Then came Eric Sevareid.

Sevareid was a protege of Edward R. Murrow. He had seen untold global conflict, as the first journalist to cover Paris’s fall to the Nazis.

But Sevareid wasn’t worried about war. He was worried about laziness.

According to CBS:

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 9.59.33 AM-cd4960.png

The idea that leisure was our biggest threat seems absurd fifty years later, when survey after survey shows we feel busier than ever.

About half of Americans say they don’t have the time to do what they want to do, according to Gallup. Three-quarters experience frequent stress. More than half say they are overworked.

But Sevareid was onto something. I think he spotted a problem decades before most people.

Higher productivity has freed up time from the average American’s day. But rather than using that extra time for leisure, or to become even more productive, we’ve used it to become busy.

Busy isn’t the same thing as working hard. Busy is the waste that occurs when you don’t know what to do with the free time that’s fallen into your lap, so you squander it on something unproductive and disappointing.

That’s what Sevareid warned about fifty years ago when he said “those that have the most leisure are the least equipped to make use of it.”

And it’s pretty much what’s happened since.


No matter how busy and overwhelmed people feel today, they have (on average) more leisure time than at any other point in history.

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