Without a doubt, the most common business symptom is being too busy. From the executive ranks to the line worker, everyone is “crazy busy.” As far as comparisons to medical symptoms, you would think that the pervasiveness of being busy makes it similar to the very common symptom of having a fever. This comparison, however, is not the best representation. Busyness is not like having a fever because you only get a fever when you are sick. People are too busy all the time. In fact, it might be more noticeable that you are not busy rather than too busy.
In order to understand this conundrum, it makes sense to start our examination at the individual level. Like many of life’s great mysteries, though, it is often useful to look at the problem from a different perspective. Rather than look at why we fail to see the benefit of being less busy, it is more illustrative for us to examine why we chose, and possibly prefer, to live in a state of constant activity and stimulation.
- Necessity – Whether we feel pressure to keep our job or work multiple jobs, the desire to secure our future is a powerful motivator. Busyness is an outward display of productivity, commitment, and loyalty to any employer. If you need to keep a job, you work hard to look busy.
- Status – Many cultures view busyness as a badge of honor that raises an individual’s social status. In countries where people are deemed to be socially mobile – that is, hard work pays off – being busy is a way to increase your social capital.
- Ease – Prioritizing what is important and what can wait is a difficult and never-ending chore. It takes courage to say no and potentially disappoint others. Choosing to be reactive to external requests for our time is an easy escape from difficult decisions and conversations.
- FOMO – Nobody likes being left out. Information has always had value, but living in the Information Age means its currency has never been stronger. Hearing things first and being in-the-know are strong forces that make us attend more meetings and read more emails than are likely necessary.
- Routine – There are certain things we do that frequently serve no purpose or provide marginal benefit. We continue to do them, never questioning their value, because taking the time to figure it out would take more time out of our day. Our priorities may not be served by continuing these tasks, but today is simpler if we just keep doing what has always been done.
- Avoidance – We all procrastinate. Frequently, when we do procrastinate, we discover strange tasks that elevate in priority for mysterious reasons. Rooms are cleaned. Papers are filed. Projects are started. Regardless of what new tasks gain priority, we often create diversions to take our attention away from activities we loathe. Comically, we would be better off doing nothing when we procrastinate. Instead, we create new projects and task lists out of guilt – further exacerbating our hectic pace.
The truth is that the responsibility for this crazy-busy existence falls entirely on our own shoulders. We don’t have to instantly read every new email. We don’t have to attend every meeting we are invited to. We could make the time to focus on getting fewer more important things done. Instead, we consciously elect to be distracted by constant activity and stimulation. The decision to engage in non-essential work is what distinguishes Busyness from a lack of Agency.
When we examine busyness at the interpersonal level, it is once again important to look at the problem from a different perspective. The concept of leisure and “free-time” only became part of the average human condition in modern times. Through most of history, humans have worked in small groups to hunt for food and farm the land just to survive another day. Except for very wealthy upper classes, “free time” is a concept that is relatively new to the average person. In fact, a significant portion of the world’s population still lives under the pressure to scratch out an existence each and every day. Our strength as a species lies in our capacity to form tribes and our ability to collaborate. We are wired to help one another in the quest to survive.
Understanding our compulsion to help others allows us to better comprehend why we let external requests drive our daily priority. If we view emails, meeting invitations and chat messages as small requests for help, we can see how they trigger our internal drive to assist a friend in need.
When we explore busyness at the organizational level it is interesting to note that we have simultaneously mastered and over-complicated the concepts that influence how we cooperate in civilized society. You would think that millennia later, organizations and businesses – the apex of modern civilization – would have mastered the art of focus and prioritization. Unfortunately, we’re still not there. We have mastered some of these techniques, but we have also created new burdens that contribute to our frenzied existence.
Our stretch goals can often stretch us too far. Our insatiable appetite for new projects often ignores the need for meetings where we say NO to new initiatives. Our status reports wouldn’t be thick enough and our meetings wouldn’t be long enough to justify our budgets, headcounts, and importance.
How can any amount of work be validated if the underlying goal is not sufficiently worthy? How can we be satisfied with a modest singular goal that could be expressed simply? How can we justify our staffing levels, or the next hire, if we aren’t pressing against the limits of our capacity?
This is the busy world we have created. This is the busy world we live in. This is a reality that is based on activity over achievement. This is the world where we are all too busy.
Excerpted from CLARITY: Business Wisdom to Work Less and Achieve More (Ignite Press).
About the Author: Jim Vaselopulos is a C-level business advisor and executive coach with a proven record as a leader, strategist, rainmaker, and expert in new business development. With his principled leadership, visionary approach, and effective execution, Jim has successfully established new companies and transformed underperforming organizations. As the founder of Rafti Advisors, Jim assists early-stage businesses in launching successfully, growth-stage enterprises in accelerating their progress, and established organizations in navigating complex challenges and strategic shifts. He teaches sales and professional development and frequently speaks on the subjects of leadership and innovation. Jim is also the co-host of The Leadership Podcast and volunteers regularly with business incubators and veterans groups. He graduated from the University of Illinois with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering and earned his MBA at Marquette University. Jim is a dedicated husband and father of two wonderful children with his wife, Dana.