Some people are busy but not productive. That’s because they’re not the same thing. For that matter, the most productive among us are not always the most effective, which is a higher level of performance than productivity. Here’s the case for not being so busy.
The most recent Harvard Business Review magazine’s cover story is The Busyness Trap. It warns us to not conflate activity with achievement. Almost simultaneously, Sunday’s Boston Globe featured an article about how family life slowed down during the pandemic – and how many parents hope to maintain that slower pace. Lately, we’re seeing two ends of the spectrum; one is that feeling that we’re supposed to be busy, all the time, and the other that says, slow down.
I was very lucky early in my career to work at a small firm where our president focused on the results we achieved. He was part of a movement at Ford Motor Company in the 1970’s to share profits based on outcomes. He was very clear that our performance was viewed on the impact we made for our clients, not on working the most hours. After that, I went to a global firm that was all about how many hours you worked. So, you saw a lot of busyness that may or may not have been tied to an outcome that benefitted the client or the person working the long hours. As a matter-of-fact, clients were often suspicious about why we stayed around long after they left for the day. I knew the reasons for this philosophy – increase billable hours and/or impress your boss – but, right or wrong, it seemed ridiculous to me because of my previous experience.
Are you or your team getting caught in the busyness trap? Are you focusing out activities? Or, are you more focused on outcomes? Obviously, there is frequently a connection between the two. You need a certain level of activity to achieve outcome. But there often isn’t a one-to-one relationship.
Why busyness can be counter-productive.
Busyness has become a badge of honor, a status symbol. Our worth seems to be defined by how busy we are. The problem is that, in today’s complex, rapidly changing world, we really won’t create the innovative breakthroughs by always being so busy that we’re at risk of burnout. Instead of doing a good or okay job on a whole lot of things, it’s usually more effective for the organization if you do fewer things exceptionally well. We need time to think, experiment, and reflect. When I am working with leaders to build resilience, I’ll ask them to be silent for 30 seconds to check in on how they are feeling. Too often they tell me they couldn’t shut off their to do list or the many things ahead of them. My question is then, what if you took one or two things off that list, how would it make you feel? Would you be able to be more productive, efficient, and effective at the other things you’re doing?
The person with the longest list doesn’t win. Let’s let go of being so in love with busy. Start by setting aside a few minutes each day to slow down – to think, to connect, to invent, or just be quiet and rejuvenate. You’ll be amazed at what a few minutes of unbusy can do.