What summer break can teach us about being busy vs. getting things done

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This afternoon, when sitting at the beach for the second day in a row, I had one of those “should” moments we all experience from time to time.

Is it right for me to be sitting here at 2 in the afternoon on a Thursday? Maybe I should be working,” I thought.

I quickly waved the thought away, applying more sunscreen as I watched my boys splashing in the water while Clara dug in the sand at my feet.

After all, we’ve had an unseasonably cool summer, and there just haven’t been that many hot, sunny days that have lent themselves to a leisurely afternoon on Lake Michigan. Living in a beach town, it would just be wasteful not to take advantage of the sand and waves when we can.

But more importantly, I’ve found that the summer – when my kids are all out of school and our schedule is turned upside-down and, more often than not, I have small people wandering in and out of my office while I work – is always an important reminder of the difference between “being busy” and “doing what needs to be done.”

Truth be told, my essential workload doesn’t change much in the summer. I still have client expectations to meet, stories to write and schedule, emails to answer.

What changes? My attitude.

Because our household routine is so much looser and my kids are around all day, I feel more free to take entire mornings or afternoons away from my computer to head to the beach, the park, the ice-cream shop.

I find myself fitting work around all the things I want to do before the summer is over, rather than trying to “fill up” work hours with productive-seeming activities that are often really just busy-work or wheel-spinning.

And as a result, I make a lot of hay in a very few hours each week, and I admit, I sometimes wind up feeling a little uncomfortable about it.

The “should” side of my brain asks: If what I’m doing has value, is genuine, is worth what I earn for it, shouldn’t it be taking up more of my time?

But let’s turn this on its head. Rather than feeling like I should be working more during the summer, what if I should actually be working less – or, to be clear, spending less time “working” on things that don’t matter – the rest of the year?

It’s pretty sobering and perspective-shifting when you look back over a three-month period and realize that the entirety of your essential “full-time” job could actually fit into a few hours a day.

It tells me a lot about the way I spend my time when I have more time to spend, and makes me question how “productive” I really am when I’m doing all that clicking and feed-sifting and typing, September through May.

It turns out there’s a difference between filling time and being productive.

And that’s what summer break teaches me, every year.

True, there are things I’m not actively doing right now that are often a part of my “ramped-up” season during the school year, when I spend more time inside, more time at the computer, and less time with my family. I’m not writing a book right now, for example, or marketing a new class.

But that’s not to say I’ve just been maintaining, either.  After all, this summer I re-launched this website, started rolling out new, exclusive email content, and am in the planning stages for a Back to School Boot Camp to help moms make good use of their time this fall.

The difference between the projects I’ve chosen to take on since June is that, when I know I want to spend hours every day playing or doing things I love, I get much more judicious about the way I use my work time. So I’m still working on the things that are the highest priority, but not spending much time worrying about those that aren’t. Or trying to pretend to myself that I’m “working” when I’m really just messing around.

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When you wake up knowing you only have two hours to work before you want to hit the beach, you get really good at figuring out the best way to use those two hours – making far more impact in far less time than you might if you have “all day” to “work.”

For those of you in more traditional jobs, who don’t have a lot of freedom over the way you spend your work day, this post may not seem to apply to you.

But is that true? Maybe your attitude changes in a different way over summer break (or some other slowed-down period of the year.)

Maybe you stop worrying about non-essential household tasks, because you’ve got better things to do.

Maybe you’re less likely to answer a work email from home at 7 PM because you’re out on the back deck enjoying a leisurely dinner with your family.

Have things fallen apart at work because of it – or can a scaled-down approach to busy-ness act as a guide to the way you treat your job during the rest of the year?

I’m not suggesting we work in “summer mode” all the time.

In any business, there need to be ramped-up periods of time when we push harder, go longer, hit the ground running. (And for some of us, that time actually comes during the summer!)

But what my leisurely summer teaches me every year is that there is also room in a successful business for a slowed-down pace and a pared-back workload.

In fact, if we look closely at how we spend our time at work when we don’t want to spend a lot of time working, it can help act as a guide for those things that can be cut, ignored, or let go when we’re really ready to hit it hard and make an impact.

And if nothing else, realizing that I’m still getting plenty done in “summer mode” has helped me feel a lot less guilty about spending a lazy afternoon at the beach.

After all, one of the reasons I’ve worked so hard to build a flexible work-at-home lifestyle is so that I can decide how, when, where, and why I take on specific projects – or don’t.

It would be a shame to waste that freedom by trying to force my work schedule into the rest of the world’s “shoulds.” 

What does your summer workload tell you about the way you spend time the rest of the year?


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  • Whitney

    This is something I’ve been thinking about all summer. My new-ish job is as a teaching assistant, so I don’t work at all during the summer. It’s been VERY odd for me to work like crazy, getting up at insane hours for 9 months and then stop cold. I find myself thinking about work, but really, the building is shut and there’s nothing I can do. I’m jobless, in a way, for three months. And while it’s amazing to get such a vacation, I find it jolting as well. I have no great conclusions about what I should be doing or sometimes, even what I want to be doing. It helps that at the beginning of the summer, I made a list of things that I wanted to do and we’ve pretty much done all of them. That helps me realize I really have accomplished things, even when it seems like all I’ve done is goof off, eat popsicles, and watch movies. We’ve traveled, taken a few interesting classes, celebrated two birthdays, read a big number of books, taken a few risks, and stretched ourselves. And that’s good!

  • Krista

    I love this! I’m busy all the time, all day long the rest of the year, but feel as if I never get things done, as if I can never catch up. During the summer I feel guilty as if I should be doing more, planning my days more, accomplishing more. This puts to words what I’ve been starting to think….I’m filling my time with too much meaningless busy work…thanks for the reminder.
    Quality over quantity, right!