“I’m busy” is the call of the meek (and they shall not inherit the earth)

It's All in the Eyes. By Chris Gilmore
It’s All in the Eyes. Photo courtesy of Chris Gilmore.

Have you ever been stressed and overwhelmed by your workload, but then got the satisfaction of getting a grip of your to-do list?  I manage this several times a month, and I find it empowering and calming.

My favorite part is when I write a fresh list without dragging over the crossed-out items from the prior list. Then I write next to each task the priority number in which I would like to approach them.  After that, I write an new fresh list, prioritized in the order I had chosen.

It turns out I was onto something.  Having a clear sense of purpose and direction is the thing that makes us productive.  And that’s totally different from being busy.

Instead of resorting to the “I’m busy,” proclamation, simply organize your obligations and commitments.  You’ll realize it’s a good thing.

But once things are under control, you lose your bragging rights about being busy.  That’s a bad thing.

“I’m Busy” is a Humblebrag

In an article by Jessica Stillman in Inc.com from 2016, she shares research showing that people who say they are busy are perceived to be more important.  People know the “I’m busy” humblebrag is compelling and they use it liberally.  I think people only say “I’m busy” because others are saying it too.  Kind of like straight people drawing attention to the fact they’re straight, or women’s right activists saying they don’t call themselves feminists.  If there weren’t these crowd-sourced self-impositions to look busy and conform to norms, would we still be grabbing for labels that allow us to fit in and be validated?  Surely it would be easier to bring our best to the workplace and be our usual, weird selves.

As people increasingly say they are busy, the evidence suggests otherwise.  In another article by Stillman she reports data from the U.S. that people are sleeping more and finding more time to watch television compared to a decade ago.  This article was from two years ago when people were still watching televisions instead of being addicted to their phones. On average, people are not more busy.  “It’s not entirely surprising that we fit in all [that]… leisure — the average full-time workweek is a moderate 42 hours.”

Busy People Are Not Always Giving Their Best

In those cases where people are truly busy, it’s not a good thing.  Beyond a certain point people suffer cognitive overload.  In an article in Inc.com from June 2018, Wanda Thibodeaux interviews Fouad ElNaggar, the chief executive of an employee experience portal called Sapho.  ElNaggar cites oft-quoted research that people “…check email 47 times a day… And it takes an average of 25 minutes to get back on task after being interrupted.  They experience an endless tidal wave of beeps that require an acknowledgement or response and with mobility.”

ElNaggar references research that people compensate for the barrage of interruptions by working faster.  This leaves people stressed-out “…and subsequently, focus, concentration, and creativity – all tank.”  These are not the people who have got into the zone and got a lot of work done exceptionally well.  These are people who are controlled by clients, superiors, Facebook friends, and advertising algorithms coming out of the Silicon Valley.  These are people who have become unimportant.

He asserts responsibility for this problem sits with leadership, but notes individual employees need to share some blame.  He encourages individuals to take control of their calendar and decline meaningless meetings, assign narrow windows to handle email (i.e. not all day long), and keep the cell phone out of the bedroom.

However, this opens two controversial opinions.  One, he presumes we have enough control over our work-day to make these trade-offs.  Only leaders that give employees autonomy can expect employees to improve their work pace for the better. The second is that ElNaggar’s remedies imply you can become more effective by being less busy.

How Productive People Differ from Busy People

In an article from February of 2018, Larry Kim asserts productive people have a mission in their lives, have few priorities, and focus on clarity before action.  “Busy” people want to look like they have a mission, have many priorities, and focus on action regardless of clarity.

Productive people want others to be effective, and busy people want others to be busy.  The list of behaviours and attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but you get a sense of two different styles.

Described in this manner, people who say “I’m busy” are not actually drawing attention to their importance.  Rather, they are broadcasting that they lack focus, have no control, and are short on self-management.  “I’m busy” is a malfunctioning humblebrag, as it serves a backhanded compliment that insults the self.

But it might be early days for this realization.  You might have superiors and influential colleagues who have that busy buzz to them.  If this polarity between productivity and busyness comes into public view, it’s not going to look good for the busy-bees.

The biggest revelation from Kim’s article is that “Productive people make time for what is important.”  Productive people are all about mission, priorities, and focus, and they are allowed to target their time and effort.  If you have ten minutes to spare to get “important” work done, that important work is to consider your values and your mission, and create a fresh draft of your priorities that put everything into perspective.

People might not see you breaking a sweat, but with time you will deliver better results.  But remember, it looks way better when there’s no boasting.  And that will go a lot further after we’ve outed the “I’m busy” call of the meek.

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