Bragging About Being Busy at Work Means You Might Be Missing the Point of Productivity

how to deal with being busy

People wear their busyness like a badge of honour. Being rushed off your feet is a modern day way of stating your importance and more and more of us succumb to the trap of ‘being busy’.

Unless we have a mountain of a to-do list in front of us, we feel somewhat uneasy. Hitting the bottom of that pile ought to be a cause for celebration but instead we feel like we’re missing out, not doing what we should be doing, or worse, being ‘unproductive’.

Sure, for many people, having a lot of things to do is simply part and parcel of their every day. Workplaces are often chronically understaffed with organisations attempting to save costs by lumping the work of three jobs into a single role. Outside of work, keeping all the various plates spinning (exercise, sleep, your social life, kids, hobbies, and a million other things) is a non-stop operation.

Still, being in demand makes us feel good. Someone else needs the work you are doing, therefore making your skillset and your time important. People like to feel important.

But that’s just it, a feeling. Aussie personal development and entrepreneurship blogger Tim Denning has written on the need that some people have to feel important through the mask of busyness.

Packing out your calendar with endless meetings as a means of keeping busy is a classic example of this desire to look important but those people are typically getting less done than practical people who simply get on with it.

Here’s how not to fall into the trap of busyness.

Being busy is a façade

In the 1930s, famed economist John Maynard Keynes believed that the grandchildren of his generation would only work around “three hours a day,” and then only by choice.

The rate of economic and technological progress in his day had already seen working hours shrink dramatically and it made sense, that following this trend, the people of the 21st century would have so much free time that they wouldn’t know what to do with themselves.

As you’re probably aware, that didn’t quite work out.

Although the Fair Work Act sets a maximum working week of 38 hours, it is rarely enforced and the average full-time working week for Australian men is 41 hours.

Aussies spend about 40% of their day in meetings or other forms of collaborative ‘work’ with others. That leaves just 35% for actual individually focused work.

‘Busy’ people love meetings, Denning writes, because they help them feel important. Most of the time, these busy people are “not busy at all”.

“They just love the illusion of being busy. Busy makes them feel important. Busy says, ‘my parent’s lack of love towards me as a child is okay because now I matter and my calendar says so.’

“Busy is covering up for a deeper problem. Busy is insecurity. Busy is a fear of facing the truth”.

Denning relates a story of an incredibly ‘busy’ recruiter he met with for an apparent business proposal. After weeks of finding a time that would work for the recruiter, with endless cancelled meetings and rainchecks in between, Denning says the man spent their initial meeting lecturing him on “how big his house was, the new Porsche he bought, and how he spends a lot of late nights in the office.”

“Thankfully, he says, he ‘married the right one’ who lets him remain endlessly busy.”

“He wears busyness as a badge. He’s insanely proud of living a life in back-to-back meetings.”

“People really struggle to get meetings with me. That’s when you know your time is valuable,” the man tells Denning.

“It’s too hard to do business with busy people,” Denning concludes. “They’re too busy to get anything done, therefore the outcome will never be reached. Save yourself.”

Stopping the illusion of time scarcity

“Lack of time is sometimes perceived to be a problem of the rich — an inconvenience for those otherwise well resourced,” clinical psychology professor Lyndall Strazdins writes.

“This myth is one reason lack of time is often not taken seriously for average Australians.”

Her study, undertaken at the Australian National University, found that 5% of Aussies who are time poor go on to develop chronic health conditions. So it’s a real issue.

The distinction here is between people who genuinely don’t have time — single mothers being the most time-poor demographic — and those who just like to feel as if they don’t.

This can also be framed as those who are ‘busy’ and those who are genuinely productive.

Denning contrasts his busy recruiter with a former boss he refers to as The Buddha. This eternally chilled boss became someone who people wanted to work for precisely because he made a point of not being busy.

“If he didn’t want to attend a big-wig meeting then he would simply send a junior like me in his place. Our team was represented, and I got exposure to more responsibility and senior stakeholders I’d normally never get to meet,” Denning writes.

“The coolest part is, because his calendar was always quiet, you could have coffee with him at will to talk about life. He would sit there and listen.

“It was more like a partnership where you always felt important, and his calendar made you feel like it”.

Not only is Denning’s boss able to empower his employees through his dedication to productivity, but he also enables himself to have space and time to work on the problems he really needed to.

“His ad hoc calendar set him free. It gave him time to think. His creativity levels were through the roof. He’d be given the most impossible business problems to solve and find a way. People would ask, “how’d you do it?”

“Only I knew his secret: an empty calendar that gives him time to think”.

For those who are genuinely time-poor, Strazdins recommends viewing time as a finite and valuable resource that has limits. She also suggests businesses experiment with shorter days for their employees and increasing their working hour flexibility.

Denning recommends people say no to more meetings and prioritising the things that actually do matter.

“Bragging about being busy is a disease that covers up the real problem: a poor understanding of what matters in life,” he writes.

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