Being too busy


It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?

~Henry David Thoreau


It’s very trendy these days to be busy.

People in the modern workplace wear busyness as a badge of honor. In any elevator in any office building in the country, you can hear people talking about how full their plates are, about working nights and weekends, about being “swamped” or “under water,” about working 60-plus-hour weeks.

But think about busyness from a rational perspective.

  • Does being busy mean the same thing as working hard?
  • Does busyness automatically translate to effectiveness?
  • Does busyness ensure your goals will be achieved or your dreams will be realized?

The answer to each of these questions is no. There is nothing inherently wrong with being busy as long as all the things on your to-do list are either required (more on this later) or in direct support of a goal or dream (more on this later).

Sometimes busyness occurs as the result of poor management, such as a supervisor assigning too many tasks to a particular person. In many working environments, there always seems to be the competent person or the “go-to” person (let’s call him or her Pat).

Pat knows how to get things done. Pat has all the contacts and knows who to call. Pat knows where the forms are and who needs to sign them. Pat knows exactly what you’re asking for and can get it together. You know Pat. Every workplace has one. But just think how effective Pat could be if Pat’s supervisor prioritized tasks and limited the busyness so that Pat has time to dig deep, be creative, and apply himself or herself to important tasks that are in direct support of a goal. Any competent person can develop Pat-like effectiveness and efficiency, but all too often it’s easier to just give it to Pat.

Whenever I meet a potential Pat, I tell Pat to be careful about being too good at things that don’t interest him or her and learn how to say: “No,” or “I’m too busy to do that right now,” or “That’s not really part of my job.” I like to have my Pats around and don’t want to lose them to burnout.

Sometimes busyness happens to people who don’t know how to say no. In the workplace or in your personal life, demands come at you like waves on the ocean, one after another—relentless. Do you feel like you have to ride each wave, or do you sit and consider each wave and pick the good ones? Is the wave big enough? Is the break interesting? Are there too many surfers trying for the wave? (Yes, this is still a metaphor.)

When demands come up, before you paddle in, consider whether you have to address them (e.g., are they required?), and consider whether addressing them will advance your goals, interests, or dreams. These two criteria are critical. In order to be sure you are addressing the important things every day, it might be helpful to make a list of your goals, interests, and dreams. For our old friend Pat, the list looks like this:

  • Work:
    • Pat’s priorities, professional interests, professional goals
    • Boss’s priorities
    • Big boss’s priorities
  • Family:
    • Quality/social time
    • Spouse’s priorities
    • Children’s priorities
  • Support of dreams (x ,y, z)
  • Social time (friends)
  • Exercise
  • Other required commitments

For any demand that comes up, Pat should link it to one of these six categories or else ignore it, deny it, or delegate it.

But what about the last category (Other required commitments)? This is where people run into trouble. There are always some things in life that don’t support your goals, interests, or dreams, but just have to be done. This includes things like doing your taxes, reconciling your expense report, changing the oil in your car. But be extremely strict about what makes the cut. Ask yourself what would happen if you didn’t do it.

If the answer doesn’t involve your house burning down, take it off the list!

Of course, some people thrive on being busy (if you’re one of those people, give me a call—I have a fence that needs painting). But for many people, busyness is more about being lazy with regard to organizing priorities, or the inability to say no. Just keep in mind that doing a lot does not mean doing something that is meaningful. Busy and productive are not the same thing.

Keep looking at the waves and take only the best ones.

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One comment

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