Too busy to be useful?

Steven Phillips
Steven Phillips

Zeitgeit: the general beliefs, ideas, and spirit of a time and place. The world of business has a general belief, ideas and spirit of the moment that is worth questioning very hard indeed.

Anyone out there thinking “…nice quiet day, plenty of time and space to reflect, …work leaves plenty of relaxing space in which I can consider the very best ways of meeting the challenges to ensure that we are delivering the most competitive value possible. No need to be expedient and rush headlong from one thing to the next”?

No?

Me neither. We have largely come to believe that fast is good, busy is good, not enough hours in the day must somehow equate to success. And, at some other level, deep down under the rock from where our unconscious is trying to tell us all the important things we didn’t realise we knew, we know that being this busy is nonsense – of course. A very encouraging part of the zeitgeist is a small but growing questioning by clients in big corporations about whether all this busy-ness is doing business any good.

But we are addicts, addicted to the dopamine, the adrenaline and the cortisol of it all. And addicted to the avoidance of deeper thought – often we haven’t thought hard about stuff for so long that we are afraid of just how much it might hurt if we did! How did we get so busy in the first place? The following five points of explanation are from Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much by psychologist Tony Crabbe to whom we are extremely grateful:

“Busyness is not essential. Yes, there is a lot to do, but believing you are always busy because you have so much to do is both false and unhelpful. This is why you are busy:

1. Busy is easier

Busy is the easy option. We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices. We allow the world and our inbox to set our agenda, rather than think for ourselves.

It’s easier to simply react; to choose to try to do everything, rather than make the difficult decisions and “un-choose” things; it takes more courage to do less.

In fact, as Ben Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, explains, busy is actually one of the seven deadly sins; it is slothfulness. In the Middle Ages, slothfulness had two forms: one is lazy, the other – acedia – is running about frantically. “There is no real place I’m going, but by God, I’m making great time getting there.”

2. Busy is avoidance

All those things you keep meaning to do – those things that will make a real difference in your life and career – are hard to do.

In the heat of the moment, when we have to choose between easy work and hard work, between skimming through email or grappling with that complex project, we more often than not choose the easy, busy, activity.

We throw ourselves into frenetic activity and give ourselves the perfect excuse for not doing the big-thinking stuff. In being busy we get to feel productive while procrastinating!

3. Busy is an addiction

There is a small squirt of the cocaine-like dopamine released each time you look at your email; and Google searches release opiate-like substances.

Do you reach for your first fix of email, before your first fix of caffeine each day?  Which of us hasn’t fought with the temptation to whip our phones out for a quick hit of social media or text, even when we know we shouldn’t (on average every 6.5 minutes)?

4. Busy is about time

Busy is an experience. We feel harried and overwhelmed for much of our waking moments.

So what strategy do we employ to address this? For most of us, it is time management. We believe that if we could manage our time more effectively, we’d be more in control of our life and more effective.

However, in a world of infinite demand, the more we manage our time, the more we can cram into our days. The focus on managing our time has three effects: we get more efficient, and so we do more things, and so we get busier.

Our attention narrows and so we lose the perspective needed to make good choices, and as we get better at juggling more, our attention gets scattered and diffuse, meaning we don’t appreciate anything.

If we want to achieve calmer, more effective and happier lives, time management is not the solution. In fact, it’s making things worse.

5. Busy is a (rubbish) success strategy

For the whole of human history we have been living in a world of scarcity. When there is too little, we constantly strive for more. Whether food, stuff or information, we try to get as much as we can.

This applies in the workplace too.

The basic principle of agriculture, manufacturing and even office life has been the more the better. So we play the “more” game. We assume that personal productivity is what will deliver success.

However, in a world of too much, the last thing we need is more of anything. When everyone is so overwhelmed, the biggest scarcity is attention.

In order to succeed, in your career or in a business, you have to cut through the noise and be noticed.

In focusing on doing more things and being more productive, the big stuff – the thinking and the creativity – gets squeezed out.

We have become drudges, too busy to lift our heads and do the things we know will make an impact and differentiate ourselves. We don’t need to be more productive; we need to do less, better.”

Our experience at Ideas Unlimited is that it is possible to enable our clients to “…be more productive; to do less, better.” And that it involves learning and applying new disciplines, new rigour and new focus of attention. It is simple, and as we have said before, doing the simple things is much more of the real challenge. We construct and use complex things specifically to unconsciously avoid the harder challenge of getting the simple stuff right. A programme to not be so busy, in order to be more productive, will really rock your organisation – in almost all senses of the word “rock” you can imagine.