Thursday, July 7, 2016

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Vanity and Insanity of Busy​
by Jordan Cleland 

A conversation I guarantee you’ve either heard or been a part of in the last week or two:
“How are you?”
“Oh, I’m busy. You?”
“I’m slammed.”

Or another conversation that occurs far too often:
“So ya keepin’ busy?”

If you want to blow the questioner’s mind, try answering with “No, not really. Certainly nothing I can’t handle.”

There seems to me a certain martyrdom and even cult of busy. But are we being productive?

How much of our busy is pointless, perfunctory meetings? Illogical reporting on metrics? Meetings that often end with, at best, opaque decision points or partial clarity on next steps and who is to take those next steps. Productivity consultant Yves Morieux makes the estimate in his particularly compelling Ted talk that 40% to as much of 80% of the regular work day is spent wasting time on low value tasks of our own self-designed and self-perpetuated bureaucracy.

And that means that your real value-added work has to be done in the evening, the weekend, or 6 am the next morning when you really ought to be exercising instead. Or, you don’t, and the important work just doesn’t get done at all. You’re just treading water and hoping that no one notices.

“Marketing Clarity Coach” Michelle Kirsch observed that at first she thought that our western culture’s obsession with busy was ego-based - that it was “about feeling important and accomplished and grown up”. She dug deeper and wondered if people weren’t using busy as a shield for not keeping in touch with friends or family or even worse, as it concerns our work, if it is a defense mechanism for not starting on the really important work that needs to be done.

Writes Kirsch: “When we’re busy, we don’t even have time to do the work we’re really meant to be doing. We don’t have time to go the extra mile for a client or customer. We don’t have time to make a difference for someone. Busyness acts like an invisible barrier around us, keeping us from getting over-involved, hurt or even from failing. We can’t fail if we’re too busy to start.”

Reflecting on when I do my best, most meaningful work, it is not on those days where I am “all meeting-ed up” with back to back appointments on the regular grind of the ebb and flow of our jobs. I do my best work, have my most creative insights, when I have larger chunks of unfettered desk time, or now that I work from home, deck time, especially if I turn my e-mail off.

There are countries in Europe that either have, or are seriously talking about legislated hours per week work caps, and mandatory “no work emailing” times of day. Government laws and regulations are almost never the right answer. The solution likely lies in the individual (you), and certainly groups of individuals.

So can you control your busy? If you’re the top dog at your organization, or on the second tier in the C-suite, you especially should have the skills, smarts, authority and people skills to control your busy; control your life. If there’s even a kernel of truth in my “busy as vanity” theory, wouldn’t your own sense of pride want to be able to tell people that “hey, I control my life, I control my calendar – it doesn’t control me.”

It’s hardly new, but you might start with a Stop Doing List. Look back at your last week or month. What are the activities that you really don’t need to do when compared to your annual high-level goals, or the core of your essential job description? Can someone else in your organization do those things? Does anyone at all need to do those things?

And the obvious corollary dance partner to the stop doing list is the daily to-do or priority list. Are you doing one of these every single day? Perhaps you should be. If that seems too simple, and you need a branded tag for this method, call it the Ivy Lee Method - a particular variant of the to-do list that has stood the test of time in productivity and efficiency circles.

1. At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
2. Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
3. When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
4. Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
5. Repeat this process every working day.

Others have recognized this slavish devotion to the busy treadmill and have deliberately seen the wisdom of allowing for and even mandating dedicated, blocked off, innovation and creativity time. There are elements of reference to those adages of “working smarter, not harder”. If you are always picking just the low hanging fruit off your to-do list, you might never get to the top of the tree.

Innovation, creativity and next-level performance needs time to develop. Staff in organizations get so consumed by being reactive to all the little fires, emergencies and administrivia that can dominate a work day, week, month. Companies like Google, Atlassian and 3M recognize this, and carve out 10% to 20% of any work week or month for “free” or dedicated innovation time.

Another thread to pull on is that at the root of busy is lack of ability or desire to truly delegate. This also ties back to the theory that there is ego and vanity involved. “If you want something done right, ya gotta do it yourself.” “Nobody else is smart enough or as capable to do this task but me.” So the busy piles up.

The body of literature on innovation in the workplace suggests that it is easier to identify and solve complex problems if more sets of eyes are deputized to identify and solve those problems. The literature recommends a rethink of top-down, command and control leadership structures as a prerequisite to unleashing peak performance. Innovation is not a phenomenon that is driven exclusively by leaders, but rather in creating an environment for creativity and more democratic solution-finding, innovation is unleashed, unlocked, or allowed to emerge

When Fast Company’s Daniel Pink talks about the new paradigm of motivation, he stresses that it “begins with a different assumption. It presumes that people want to be accountable - and that making sure they have control over their task, their time, their technique, and their team is the most effective pathway to that destination.”

A strong majority, perhaps 80 to 90 %, in any workplace have that intrinsic motivation and pride to excel at their work. Pink says that a paradox is that most workplace have rules and policies and even performance management frameworks for the 10-20% that might shirk their responsibilities, take advantage of autonomy and flexibility.

This is the cultural and foundational starting point, where a leader(s) has to cultivate or unleash this environment of trust, autonomy, purpose and allowing people to master their important role in the success of the whole.

So do you want to work on cultivating that kind of environment? Or do you have to finish that spreadsheet?

Jordan Cleland is the President of Jordan Cleland Consulting. He does one on one performance and leadership coaching, keynote and retreat speaking, fund development and public relations consulting; and was recognized nationally by Colleges and Institutes Canada as a Gold Medallist in Leadership Excellence.