Busy-ness Is Nothing to Brag About

“I am so busy. “

“I am too busy to …”

“I have no time …”

“You have no idea how busy I am …”

“Want to look at my schedule? It’s crazy busy!”

These lines or similar ones are oft spoken to ward off new work, or in defence of no-show at events, and to evoke admiration, envy or pity. I remember reading somewhere a line that advocated giving an important task to someone who is busy, to ensure it gets done. The logic then was the busy one has mastered time management, and can work expediently and productively. When we glamourise or gloss over ‘busy-ness’ without consideration of root cause, we are raising future generations of highly active unproductive beings, and in the meantime, condoning poor time management skills.

Stephen Covey, in his bestseller The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, emphasised personal mastery as the basis of effectiveness as a person. He advocated proactive ownership of our own life, setting goals and having a purpose in our lives, and prioritising aka putting first things first. I love the simple Johari window that plots life activities in terms of importance relative to our values, goals and purpose, against time in terms of urgency.

It turns out that ineffective people spend a lot of time in quadrants I (necessity), III (deception) and IV (waste) rather than on II (quality and leadership). Quadrant III activities are the perfect excuses for procrastinators whereas quadrant I activities appear to be do-or-die types. Those of us who are busy might want to review our busy-ness using this simple chart.quadrant-of-busy-ness1

To improve on the quality of our output and develop self-mastery, we need to work on quadrant II-type activities. This is harder on those of us who have developed the 11th hour adrenalin-rush fetish for getting things done – in fact we brag about how hard and furiously we had to work to get things together. We are always too busy to get the important but not urgent things done.

These days, as I move around client companies, I observe that it is difficult to get some executives to commit time for their coaching sessions. The common excuse is busy-ness; their schedules are filled with meetings of all sorts and purposes. I wonder when, if at all, these very busy people do any work. I find it hard to believe that companies hire people just to attend meetings. John Kenneth Galbraith, a renowned economist, once remarked that “meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything.”

Reducing busy-ness requires self-mastery, particularly being able to prioritise and to initiate rather than just respond.

So let me pick ‘meetings’ as an area where you can reduce your busy-ness. The average manager spends at least half a day every day at meetings. That makes 50 percent of a work week. What is worrying is that the higher the position, the more time is spent in meetings rather than doing work, which means that meetings cost even more if they are not run efficiently.

Being an erstwhile economist who loves numbers, my brain goes into the maths of meetings – if 10 managers attend a meeting for an hour and a half, how much did that meeting cost and would the outcome of that meeting justify that expenditure? For meetings that do not end up with action plans and decisions, and require more meetings or email exchanges, what would the ultimate output have cost in real terms? Do we actually need that number of people in the meeting? Was the meeting necessary? Do the meetings have to take that long?

Former Ernst & Young executive, Al Pittampalli, says that most meetings are mediocre and not necessary, and we are now addicted to meetings that insulate us from the work we ought to be doing.

Here are some ways to turn busy-ness (aka attending meeting after meeting) into productivity.

  1. Keep one day a week completely meeting free across the department or the organisation, to focus on quadrant II activities. Set goals for that day and work to accomplish them. Otherwise, some may feel a little lost for a start while others may lapse into quadrant IV.
  2. Structure meetings with agendas and time limits, and make expectations clear. Begin with the end in mind; all discussions are focused on getting to the desired outcome or committed action plan. All other matters will be explored at the end of the current meeting. Work at a brisk pace to keep everyone alert.
  3. Start on a positive note. A piece of good news, or an uplifting account of events, sets off a ripple effect of sharper thinking and more creativity.
  4. Watch out for derailers and naysayers who seem to exude suffocating negative energy and may cause meetings to drag. Guide their contribution towards more constructive expression of thoughts and ideas.
  5. Everyone in the meeting must have a clear definite role and contribution to make. Freeloaders and spares are a waste of company’s time and money. If only three people are required to come to a conclusion, have a mini caucus to decide and then broadcast to the others.
  6. Do not convene meetings for informational purposes, or just because it was scheduled.

Being too busy to do the things that matter is a choice we make.

Working in quadrant I for prolonged periods of time is an invitation for stress and burnout as everything is urgent and important. Can some of these activities be prevented or mitigated? Do we have procedures in place to deal with such exigencies? What can we do to prepare better for these occurrences?

We each have 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week, 52 weeks in a year, and a personal life span. Some accomplish much, some live life fully, and some have a wonderful tapestry of life experiences. Others might spend their lives lamenting about their lack of time when it is really their lack of self-discipline to develop self-awareness, identify goals, and then focus on achieving them with determination and perseverance.

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As a society, we need to stop glamourising busy-ness. Busy executives extend their work-days to do the work left undone due to meetings. Physically, emotionally, mentally, socially and probably spiritually, we are sucked into succumbing to the tyranny of working too long and too hard rather than working smart and quickly – too tired to shake the status quo. Be alert. Be mindful. Be alive. Stop being busy and live!

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