‘Busy’ as a Badge of Honour

We do it all the time. We bump into a friend and it goes something like this:

“Hey, how’s work?”

“Busy. Crazy busy. How about you?”

“Yeah, so busy. It’s been madness. Must be that time of the year.”

When I hear this, I think ‘busy’ is often used as short hand for “there’s been a lot on and I can’t be bothered going into detail.” We’re too busy being busy to entertain small talk. We like the feeling of pride that comes with having so much on. Rats in the rat race running as fast as we can to get ahead! No one ever got a pat on the back for not having much to do.

The real problem is the underlying assumption:

If we do more work, we’ll get more success.

This is a reasonable assumption when it’s clear what the best outcome is and everyone knows how to get there. A linear relationship between what we put in and what we get out.

But, in the knowledge work most of us do, there are many complex situations in which the outcomes aren’t always clear. In fact, there can be so many options and moving parts that we have no certainty of outcome. The only way forward is to determine all the viable options we have. Then test them in a safe environment to maximise learning and decide our strategic direction.

This can be for large matters such as how to grow a learning organisation or an innovative culture. Or, narrower in scope, how to improve the performance of your three direct reports.

Back to busyness. Ticking things off our list gives a feeling of progress. Progress is a key motivator for us humans. Have you ever added something to your things-to-do list just so you can cross it off?

Dr Jason Fox calls this the Delusion of Progress. Progress in things that don’t matter and are a distraction from what’s important. He also introduces us to the Curse of Efficiency. We’re so busy being efficient that new (potentially valuable) ideas pose a threat.

So, how can we break this ridiculous notion that busyness equals effectiveness? How can we shift the focus to important, complex matters that require deep thought? Here are three steps to get you going:

1. Get clear on purpose. This is different to setting clear goals*. Purpose is about being clear on the impact we hope to have. It sets a direction but does not aim for a fixed point to the exclusion of other possibilities. Why are we doing this? What impact do we hope to have?

*Goals can narrow the focus, reduce intrinsic motivation and motivate risky and unethical behaviours. Check out Goals Gone Wild for more on this.

2. Set aside chunks of time for deep thinking. Involving reflection, research or group conversation. Choose a length of time that works for you. The temptation to produce something or solve a problem will be strong. This may not be possible in the time allocated. That’s ok. It’s the deep thought that matters. How much time could we take out to explore options for ___? What do I need to say “no” to, to make space?

3. Change the language from ‘busy’ to ‘possibilities and priorities’. ‘Busy’ can mean many things. We’re overloaded, stressed, spinning our wheels in confusion or making meaningful progress. Which one is it? Let’s talk, instead, about the priorities we’re working on and the possible outcomes. What are my top three priorities this week? What bigger picture is my work contributing towards?

Challenge for the next week: think about the most interesting thing you’ve done recently. When a friend or colleague asks you how you’ve been, resist the urge to say “busy” and tell them something interesting!

Doug Maarschalk is a trainer, facilitator and coach who uses the principles of intrinsic motivation as the foundation for his work. He has worked with New Zealand businesses in the horticulture, legal, accounting, financial services, real estate and healthcare sectors.
Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.