The Distinction Between Meaningless Activity and Meaningful Actions, And Why It Can Make All The Difference

In today’s age of always connected devices and nonstop notifications, we all have more to do each day than the hours can fit. Crossing items off the to-do list always feels good and gives one a feeling of accomplishment, but have we ever stopped and asked ourselves – accomplishment towards what?

The ‘Busy’ Trap

Whenever I have stopped to ask myself that question, I have realised that I have fallen into the trap of being busy rather than being productive. Being busy often relieves us from the fear of sitting still and the pain of conscious thinking, while the really important tasks often gets neglected.

We are often sucked into doing meaningless activities, either through algorithms running on our “smart” devices, or through habits we have formed by emulating our peers rather than consciously choosing them. In other words, we waste most of our time doing meaningless activities that we have no time left for what really matters.

Meaningless Activity vs Meaningful Actions

Meaningless vs Meaningful

Everything that we do can be divided into either meaningless activity or meaningful actions. What I mean by meaningless activity is anything we do to only keep ourselves busy. Example – checking email and social media, hanging out with friends, or anything we do without a specific intention in mind.

In contrast with the above, any activity which adds meaning to your life, or takes you in the direction of a conscious intention (or a goal), is what I would term meaningful. It could be a business trip for one, or spending time with their family for another.

What is meaningless and meaningful is different for everyone. Only you can define that. No-one else can make that distinction for you.

We are often focussed on what is urgent or what seems important today that we end up ignoring what is really important for us in the long run. Only by being aware of our decisions we can be deliberate about them to move our life in the direction we want to go.

“A man who procrastinates in his choosing will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” – Hunter S Thompson

Focus and Prioritise

Research has shown that not having the courage to live a life true to ourselves, not expressing our feelings when we should have, and working too hard are the top three regrets people have at the end of their lives.

Doing things that we find meaningful is essential to our well being. But how many of us spend time wondering about what gives our life meaning, and what is really important to us?

Three Questions

  • What are you good at?
  • What do you love doing?
  • What need can you serve?

I believe the intersection of answers to the above three questions will be the most meaningful work for you. Once you have these answers, it will give you the clarity to prioritise tasks and the courage to say “No” to anything that doesn’t align with what you discover.

Having the clarity about the “why” before the “what” and “how” of any action will ensure you create focused output that moves you forward, rather than effort that just takes you around in circles. So the next time you think you have no time to follow your dreams, you know you have fallen into the trap of being busy with meaningless activities.

Why we should stay alone more often?

In our daily lives, we strive to and take pride in being busy. We like to see ourselves multi-tasking and bask in the glory of productivity when someone acknowledges us. We live with other people (whether family or friends), work in teams and do almost everything in groups. Or we always have our mobile phone, some book or movie, or the ever ubiquitous internet with us for company. Staying alone is what we end up thinking as a waste of time.

But man is essentially an individual. He was born alone and will die alone. He does talk and interact with other people in a number of ways but in a very primitive and biological way, man is essentially individual. Sitting alone for some time should not be unsettling or unnerving, like it sometime gets in our lives. In fact, giving some time only for ourselves could be one of the most enriching experiences ever if one tries to do so. And it can solve a lot of our problems. Problems which arise only because of our inability to stay alone with our thoughts.

If one can be content while sitting alone and don’t feel (or act on) the urge of checking what your friends are doing on social media or the urge to go out and shop and eat your favourite burger or pizza, a lot of our problems can just melt away. It can break the chains and bonds of normal life and we will longer need to be constantly busy just to match up with our peers and unnecessary comparison with others. Being busy, ironically, is the place where all our problems and stress arise out of.

I restore myself when I'm alone - Marilyn Monroe

I restore myself when I'm alone - Marilyn Monroe

If you think man is a social animal and cannot survive individually, think again. Man is not fish, and from time to time, he can (and should) get away from water (daily life). We will not die like fish if we spend some time out of water (alone). In fact, we can cherish our individuality and come back to our daily lives refreshed and replenished. A day spent alone from time to time will reduce the chatter of everyday life. You learn to listen to your thoughts, be aware of the different urges to be busy you will have, and then just let them be. And let me tell you, it is not easy to be alone. It can be very unsettling at first, and you can find many reasons to ‘do‘ something. But don’t let your ‘wanting-to-be-productive’ side deny you of your right to spend some time alone.

After some time, you learn to enjoy the quietness of things. You learn to notice the sounds of the birds chirping and the wind blowing. As the clutter of daily life melts away, you are left just with your inner thoughts. At this time, you will find yourself talking to yourself. It takes time getting used to, and you can always ignore your inner voice, but you must listen to it. Some quietness can leave with you with contentment, a new perspective, and a calmer attitude. In short, it can be amazing.

Solitude also makes us realize that our life is a blank slate with nothing in it, and it is our choice what we really want to paint it with. Our life is not about the tasks and the meetings we have all through the day which look unavoidable, but is about finding ourselves. Staying alone teaches us to be content with nothing and realizing that we can paint our life canvas the way we want. What would you call a person who is so busy reaching the destination that he never stops his car for refuelling?

Now what would you call the person who is so busy living life that she misses replenishing her own soul? We all need this refueling exercise of staying alone, and then we can take our life’s car wherever we want. So try sitting alone for some time, and just be quiet. Or perhaps take a long walk alone (like I do). Maybe start with small periods of time, and then increase the duration as you feel more comfortable with it. Just watch your thoughts in solitude but don’t act on them. Just listen, watch and be content. And you will soon realize you never needed anything more!

White Space in our lives – Need and Importance

White Space is a commonly used term in the industry I work in, the Internet industry. White Space is the space that is left between text and images on a web page. It is often said that the more white space you have, the more prominent your text becomes. For example, has a lot of white space while has a drought of it….

Looking at life and ourselves, I want to apply the “White Space” principle in our daily lives too. We live in a world where we strive to be busy. Workaholic people, who spend 12-15 hours at the workplace are celebrated like martyrs in our society. Being busy has become a parameter for measuring success. We have filled up our lives with friends, work, projects, dreams, aspirations, and so on. When we pack our calendar from 8AM to 6PM, more often than not we will find no time for lunch, or re-group your desk, or reply to a mail from an old friend…

Applying the “White Space” principle to our lives, we need to realise the two kinds of white space that we find in our lives. One is which we don’t choose. Like time spent when traveling to work, waiting outside the client’s office for a meeting or waiting for your turn in a queue. We get this white space daily in our lives and more often than not we don’t make use of it and just let it go by. The other kind of “White Space” is what we decide to put into our lives. Taking some time off for ourselves just after getting up from bed, taking a few planning breaks in between, or a introspection break at the end of the day will not only help us relax and plan our lives better, it makes room for people and things that really matter.

Coming back to first kind of white space, I always try to make proper of whatever white space I get in my routine. If I am stuck in a traffic jam, I normally take out a book or article (which I always carry) and read some pages. It could be anything from business to jokes. If waiting for somebody for a meeting, I sometime just sit back with my eyes closed for 5 minutes which believe me, can really help focus better afterward. We will always get these unexpected white spaces in our lives daily and rather than being frustrated and honking on the roads, we can take this time to relax and rejuvenate for the rest of the day. Make use of this break by turning it into an energy booster, not an energy drainer.

The second kind of white space comes when you keep a little more breathing time in your calendar. Giving our self even a few minutes of breathing time everyday can make a huge impact in our lives. Begin small. Take 10 minutes out for yourselves every morning. Try to visualize your day ahead and how you plan to go about it. What tasks you want to be over by the end of the day? Or just do some breathing exercises and prepare yourselves for the day. During the day, take time between meetings. Go for a walk, and connect with your body, your breath and nature. It might be difficult at first, but we need to let go of the feeling that everything needs to be done right now. This way of thinking is embedded in our society and is very unproductive.

The point is to slow down and reconnect with yourself. How many times have you been too busy with your day-to-day schedule that you don’t even have time to think what you are doing? Learn to say “NO” to unimportant things, don’t try to “fill” time by doing something, just sit back and relax for a while. Try sometime to put your head in your mother’s lap for 10 minutes and relax. It feels great. Now remember the last time you did this!! Ever since I started taking time out for myself, I am feeling more rejuvenated and fresh. My anxiety and resentment are gone, I know what is happening with my life, and I am able to contribute more to those really close friends and family, as they are the ones who really matter.