by Stephen Scott

31 August, 2021

Are you busy?

I would be very surprised to hear that you’re not. We’re all busy. It seems that now more than ever before we are a culture defined by just how much we need to do. We work incredibly long hours, and are expected to work overtime if we’re to move up the ladder, or move the needle in any meaningful way. Most university students need to work to support themselves while they study, and are still expected to participate in internships or extracurriculars to fill out their resumes in time for the grad-job hunt.

At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we cannot let our physical health slide, for it is one of the major factors in our mental health and mental capacity – you cannot perform at the top level if you’re not also in top shape. This has been common sense throughout recorded time, but science is catching up to prove it. So we attempt to squeeze in daily workouts, and the accompanying preparation time to maintain a nutritious diet.

Oh, and you’d better meditate. How can you expect to get through such a long, demanding day without losing your cool if you’re not training those patience muscles with two ten-minute meditation sessions a day? Likewise, we all know that “leaders are readers,” so you’d better ensure you’re setting aside an hour or two per day to read the most important literature in your field.

Finally, prioritise your relationships. What’s the point of grinding your way through those ten-hour work days and gruelling side hustles if you don’t have someone to share the spoils with? Besides, you need to be human. The great American novelist Henry Miller included this in his commandments for writing: “Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it”.

It is natural to feel cripplingly busy. There is no shortage of things to do, and even things that need to be done. In the information age, where fourteen dollars for a Netflix subscription will buy you an endless stream of Can’t-Miss-TV, and your smartphone can recommend 100 Essential Books For Business, it’s a foregone conclusion that you will feel compelled to be busy.

However, the internet is not to blame. The information age is not the cause, it is a symptom. Being too busy is not a new problem. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, was writing about the perils of busy-ness in the first century B.C. “No activity can be successfully pursued by an individual who is preoccupied,” he said. “Since the mind when distracted absorbs nothing deeply, but rejects everything which is, so to speak, crammed into it.”

No, there is nothing new about being too busy, because it is not a result of outside influences. It is a decision. Renowned designer Debbie Millman agrees: “I’m a big proponent of “busy is a decision”. You decide what you want to do and the things that are important to you. And you don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things. And if you aren’t doing them because you’re “too busy,” it’s likely not as much of a priority as what you’re actually doing.”

When I ask people, “How are you?” a fairly common response is something along the lines of “swamped” or “snowed under.” The lack of an actual response (good, bad, happy, sad, fulfilled, etc.) seems to be by design, almost as though the person in question is too busy to even know how they’re feeling, or perhaps to feel anything at all. It’s important to recognise that “busy” in these responses does not imply “bad,” just as it does not imply “good.” If someone were legitimately feeling overwhelmed beyond their own choice, it would be a different story. Someone experiencing an over-load of turbulent personal crises would hardly tell you that their schedule is packed, they’d tell you that they’re struggling to get their head around the fact that their husband is in hospital, or that their parent has just passed away and they can’t handle the funeral expenses. 

The kind of busy-ness I hear about is a thinly-veiled brag. “Super busy” most commonly translates to “I’ve got heaps to do because I’m very important.” Sometimes this is true, at least in part. The CEO of any company will have an astounding amount of work to do, and an equal amount of pressure placed on their outcomes. However, I think that the current trend of denouncing endless meetings is a more obvious version of the simple truth that underlies the problem with busy-ness. By now, most of us understand that meetings can very easily become bloated – too many people, too much on the agenda, too much time spent talking, and not nearly enough achieved to make them worthwhile.

The same is true for most of what makes us busy. Busy is a signal. Having lots to do implies importance, and therefore doing a lot implies being good at being important. But it’s just that: a signal, and a signal can be deceiving, even to those who send it out.

This becomes all too clear when I then ask, “Sure, everyone’s busy. But are you productive?”

This is the critical distinction. Anyone can be busy, but productivity is an entirely different thing. Sign up for three different committees, say yes to every invitation you receive, take up two new sports, and you will be busy. But will you be productive? “Productive” is a great replacement for “busy” when you’re assessing how you’re spending your time, because the purpose is built into the word: are you producing something?

If your calendar is stacked wall-to-wall, and yet you can’t point to any meaningful progress you’ve made in that time, you have a problem. If you’re a leader, the problem is even more significant, because those you work with are looking to you for guidance, and you’re putting a premium on doing a lot of nothing.

Remember: you cannot not influence. So, when your team sees that you pride yourself on being busy, and not so much on your outcomes, they will follow suit. Most dangerously, you give those whom you lead permission to avoid the truly difficult, uncomfortable work that makes real progress. Your team learns that “I’m swamped” means “don’t bother me,” and they learn to say this to themselves, as justification to procrastinate instead of doing those big, tough tasks that actually mean something.

The only solution is to prioritise. To prioritise literally means to “make something come first,” and it is a difficult, but necessary task for anyone who wants to do meaningful work, because putting something first also means letting other things come second.

If you run a company, it might be more comfortable to spend your time answering emails and putting out spot-fires (and you might appear busier), but you need to make time for the truly important things, such as strategy or training, for example. Likewise, in your personal life, you might win some respect if you’re the strongest lifter in the gym, but if your real goal is to be healthy enough to not be limited in other areas of your life, such as your work and your relationships, then it might be time to check your ego, and question how much of your time and resources really need to be spent under the barbell.

You don’t have to do this alone, though. Self-discipline is necessary, but it’s not your only resource. Just as you need to check in with your team to ensure they’re focused on their most important work, those check-ins can be about your work, too. Sam is the executive in our business who plans and executes everything outside my role. I talk daily with her about our priorities, and while I can’t speak for her, these discussions are integral to my own productivity. It keeps me on track, and it keeps me honest. She works at the desk next to mine, so there’s no kidding her by saying I’m too busy to work on, for example, the next article I am due to write. She knows what’s important (because we talk about it all the time – creating a positive feedback loop), and sometimes she needs to remind me, and that’s okay. That’s why we have teams.

So when someone next asks you, “How have you been?” What will you do to ensure you can answer truthfully, “Really productive”? And how will you inspire those that are on your team to strive not for the badge of busy-ness, but the reality of meaningful productivity?

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