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Why are we so obsessed with being 'busy'?

In an extract from her upcoming book Gut Throat Leadership, business coach Eibhlin Johnston discusses how and why we need to overcome the addiction of being constantly 'busy'

What our obsession with being busy really means

“Busy” has lost the run of itself and is now one of the most overused words in the English language. Busy is a feeling, an excuse, boredom, sadness, lethargy, over-whelmed, uncertainty, confusion, a misunderstanding, a lack of communication and often an avoidance technique.  

When you or your organisation fail to deliver on a response or service, “busy” provides a safety net that we can fall back on.  How would you react if you asked a colleague if they were busy and they responded “I’ve got a lot to do but I’m not particularly busy”? You would possibly react with horror, envy or even anger depending on the mood you were in. Why such a reaction? What if you simply had a lot to do but you were not feeling particularly busy - just productive? It is a whole new way of thinking about busy. We have become addicted to the feeling of being busy so much so that I have known people who stretch the time it takes on one task specially to create that sense of urgency and busyness that is the new normal.

Just “being” is a thing of the past. Simply doing one thing has become extinct. One of the reasons we spend so much time on email or social media or we unconsciously make ourselves “available” to interruption, is because it creates the experience that we’re continually engaged in activity, leading us to the false conclusion that if we’re always busy, we think we are productive.

Switching your focus for 'personal productivity'

Being busy is a thinking problem which often leads to stress. A more practical definition of “personal productivity” is your ability to produce results, which has nothing to do with our level of activity, busyness, efficiency, effort, or stress. If we consistently produce quality results over time, we are productive; if we don’t, no matter how much time and effort we are putting into the job, we aren’t. 

By switching your focus on your results you are producing, and not all the things you think you have to do to produce them, you quickly see how much of every day is not productive. And yes, this runs counter to the management approach that tracks activity instead of results. The difficulty in tracking the intangibles that lead to high level results mean that work ethic often gets elevated above productivity, which is kind of like rewarding the hare for running three times as many miles as the tortoise in the process of losing the race.

There's no shortcut to hard work

The simple rule of thumb for higher productivity is this: You get more of what you focus on. Focus on your to-do list and watch it grow; focus on results and watch them happen.  One caveat: none of this is to say that if you want to be productive at a high level, you won’t have to put in the hours. I don’t know anyone who consistently produces quality results over time who doesn’t. Whether those hours are experienced as hard work or even busyness is nothing more than a reflection of your state of mind, which is directly related to your thinking. The same teenager who struggles to focus on school work for more than 10 minutes at a time can lose themselves for hours in online gaming, making music, doodling in a notebook or traveling through time and space in the pages of an epic novel.

Ask reflective questions

The problem is almost never in their brain but rather in the way they’re using their mind.  So here are a few reflective questions to get you started on the road to less busyness and more productivity. By looking in the direction they’re pointing, you’re likely to get some insights for yourself into how you can get more done with less unnecessary effort and struggle:

Think about some times in your life where your effort was disproportionate to your results; either you put in a ton of work to no avail or you felt like you barely did anything and the results came pouring in. What do you make of that discrepancy? Were they random flukes or could there be a larger principle at work? How is your experience of work different when you are fully engaged to when you are distracted? How could you cultivate the experience of full engagement? If my productivity were the result of making higher quality decisions (i.e. “one good decision a day”), how might you design your day differently? What states of mind would be of higher value to you? How can you cultivate those higher quality states of mind?

When working with clients in the area of business, I like to get them to imagine that it’s one year from today and they had their most enjoyable year yet. We explore what’s happened? What have you done? What’s different in your life now? The small shift from looking at your “best” year yet to your most “enjoyable” usually highlights the things my clients have stopped doing, not new ones that they started. Instead of a new list of achievements to pursue, they focus on a list of things to let go of. 

They stop thinking that the air of busyness has status attached to it and they look at the things that they naturally complete with ease; without a thought! They look at things they simply need to stop doing. Full Stop.

Stress is a busy person’s constant companion as there’s never enough time and there’s always too much to do. When time gets short, tempers get shorter. Urgency is nearly always a signal to slow down or take a break. When we are in a hurry, we tend to make mistakes. Important things get forgotten or missed. We cut corners and things get half done.

When we take the pressure off ourselves to be exceptional and recognise that things take time, and people aren’t always at their best, we recognize that ‘good enough’ is nearly always good enough and that if we give ourselves a bit of space and time, something new will always (yes, always) come to mind. 

This doesn’t mean that we have to go slowly. It simply means that when we are willing to slow down, we are often able to make much quicker progress.

“Someday is just a thought! Start now and things will happen”

Eibhlin Johnston will be speaking at Women in Finance Dublin on 12-13th September 2019. Register here