Minisode 004 – I’m so f@*king BUSY!

Busy means that life zips by empty and unfulfilled

Ask most people how they are and they will invariably answer that they’re busy. So busy.  But that’s good, right?  Wrong. It’s not good, and we know it. The habit our society has developed, the obsession with being busy – or at least appearing to be busy – is doing us untold damage. To us, the quality of our work, our teams and our families.  Why would it be  so wrong for your professional reputation if you were to say, when asked how you are, that things are moving along quite smoothly, thanks very much. We’ve got it under control.  Can you imagine?

So many workplaces are geared to worship the cult of busy, if you were to give that response you’d risk being viewed as uncommitted, lazy, irresponsible.  The truth is that we have become brilliant at not just creating busy work for ourselves. But reinforcing that notion by repeating the mantra that busy is good, busy is normal, busy is committed – almost every chance we get.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that busy is not good or normal.  Busy is dumb, inefficient, disorganised.  Busy is the inability to prioritise.

Busy robs us of the time we need to think, plan, create, form healthy relationships and to find a happy balance between the competing forces in our life. Busy means that life zips by empty and unfulfilled.  We all know the maxim – no one lies on their deathbed, thanking themselves for being busy. For reviewing that report before it went out. Getting in early to clear the inbox. Smashing ourselves with back to back meetings, day in, day out.

As leaders, we need to lead on this.

Author Steven Covey gave us a nice, simple quadrant model to help prioritise and spend our time more effectively. 



On the vertical axis is level of importance – low to high. The horizontal is level of urgency – high to low.  The top left quadrant is the important and urgent things that we do. Hitting deadlines, putting out fires, managing crisis, doing last minute tasks.  Covey says we should manage these activities.  Think of the time you spend here – for most people, if they’re honest, they spend a bunch of time here. But we tend to get stuck here. Whether it’s at home or at work. We seem to be doing a lot of things that are both urgent and important.

Look at the bottom left quadrant. Urgent, but not important.  How can something be urgent but not important.  Well, tasks or activities in this part of our lives are things that are important to other people. Emails that need to be read, and even worse, responded to. Some of the phone calls that you take. Some of the meetings you attend – but feel add no value to the work you are doing. Or at home – these are the demanding needs of kids and partners. Covey says we should avoid these things. They are unimportant, so by definition they don’t move us towards our life goals. This quadrant is the enemy of creativity. It is micromanagement. It is the birthplace of cynicism.  Again – if we allow it to happen, if we don’t know how to say NO, we can spend a lot of time here.

Let’s move now to the top right quadrant. Important, but not urgent.  This is where the gold lies. This is where the proactive things live.  Things like planning, building relationships, personal and professional development. Thinking. Improving and developing systems.  Covey says we should focus our energy here.  It is the things we do in the top right quadrant that have the power to reduce the time we spend in the top left and the bottom left. 

 If we spend more time on proactive, planning, shaping and thinking activities, we can unchain ourselves from the life of busy. We would, in effect, shrink those other quadrants. That would greatly reduce the time we spend busily rushing from one fire to another. But it’s activities in this quadrant that we so often sacrifice when we’re feeling under the pump.  Imagine taking charge of this. Imagine having the discipline to operate in this space.  Discipline. Courage. Vision. That’s what it takes to operate in the top right quadrant.

It takes leadership.

If we don’t spending time on important, non-urgent activities, we are the wood chopper who says he is too busy cutting down trees to stop and sharpen his axe. It is ridiculous. We are ridiculous. As an aside, let’s touch on the bottom right quadrant. Not urgent, not important. What on earth lies here?  Well, this is the world of time wasting and vegging out. And we know from research, the more time we spend in the busy quadrants, we will default to lazy, unproductive time wasting when we do find some time to sit and collapse into a chair.  

At work that might take the shape of googling something, checking Facebook or reading gossip news. At home it might take the shape of watching time wasting, brain sucking reality TV.  Covey says we must limit time here. We convince ourselves that we need this to unwind and relax.  And we do. We need to unwind and relax because we spend so much time busily reacting to spot fires and someone else’s crisis.

So what’s the answer to this? 

 Here I’ll make two suggestions. Number one is to create time – yes, I mean that. Forge out some space and defend it stoically, to operate in that top right quadrant. But at work it might mean scheduling time in your calendar to think. It might mean booking a meeting room for yourself to take a pen, blank piece of paper and plan the proactive steps you can take. 

At home, it might mean turning off the TV after the kids go to bed, sitting in a different part of the house and reading that quality book you’ve been meaning to get to. Giving yourself time to absorb new ideas, to read quality literature, to grow and develop. Or it might simply mean listening to good music. Calm and relaxing.  No one will offer you this time. You have to create it for yourself.

And my second suggestion is to find the things in your life that you can simply stop doing. Audit your time and think about the tasks you perform that take you away from the things that are important. Stop doing your own books – outsource that – and spend time working on your business strategy. Stop mowing the lawn on Saturday morning – outsource that – and spend that time playing with your children.

Back in episode number 58 I spoke to Matt Malouf, author of the book – the stop doing list.  Matt says  people who are reluctant to let go of those tasks and spend money on getting someone else to do it instead. The concept of finding the things in your life, both at work and at home, that you should stop doing is powerful.  That, combined with the Stephen Covey’s wisdom of creating time to spend on valuable tasks will help make a dent in the absurdly unhealthy cult of being busy.

Being busy is not a badge of honour.

Busy is an admission that we have lost the ability to describe the important from the unimportant. That we are no longer able to prioritise what’s important in our lives. Busy is an admission of defeat. So next time you are asked in the lift at work, how are you. What will you say. Will you fall into the modern trap of declaring yourself BUSY – or will you be a leader and take a stand? Let’s take a blow torch to the cult of busy. Let’s usher in the era of thoughtful application of energy, the art of deciding what’s important and an overt respect for ourselves.

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