A whole lot of “busy.” The person in the grocery store tapping out messages between two cell phones at once. The jogger whose eyes keep darting to the notifications blipping on their smartwatch. And the dinner party conversation that turns into a one-upping competition over who has less free time. Calendars double-booked! Overwhelmed at work!
I get it — we are all busy. I often tell people who ask for some of my time that I am, unfortunately, oversubscribed.
But is all the activity leading to anything real? Are we actually doing anything meaningful?
There is a difference between busy work and meaningful work. As Thomas Edison once wisely put it, “Seeming to do is not doing.”
So, you need to check in with yourself and see which one you are giving your time to. That is, unless you want to claim an overinflated sense of importance as an achievement.
Let me explain. Research shows that Americans in particular perceive busyness as a status symbol. The key word here is “perceive.” That is because the findings have everything to do with the image of being busy and nothing to do with the results.
Busy is not a badge of honor. It only leads to greatness if you are working for a purpose and making progress towards goals that serve it.
Of course projecting the appearance of being out of time might be coming from a place of self-preservation rather than self-aggrandizement. It may be that people are afraid of not looking busy.
In an absence of solid direction, they scramble to fill the day with tasks and meetings: What would happen if people actually knew how little I have to do? Or worse, if they knew how little I have to do and how little I actually accomplish?
There is only so much time — it is a precious resource and we cannot buy more of it. So, it would behoove us all to use our time as efficiently as possible, giving it to what matters most. This is especially important if you are a leader in title or action at your company. However, this concept applies to all of us regardless of our specific profession or title.
Here is what I have found is essential to create an environment for doing meaningful work each day:
Busy work happens when people do not have clear goals. Eliminate the waste by giving work purpose. Create a clear visualization of the goal and plan — one that is accessible to everyone — and meet regularly to discuss how you are progressing against your goals. This should be an active document that is shown and referred to often, not something that is seen once at a kick-off meeting and quickly forgotten.
Check in often. Are there tasks that are taking too much time (and not adding much value)? Is meaningful work getting pushed aside in favor of easy to-dos with no impact? Prioritize the team’s workflow so they are focused on what will deliver the most value. And do not be afraid to set aggressive deadlines for that work. Keep everyone zeroed in on meaningful achievement.
One way we do this at Aha! is by having teammates document their “progress, planned, and problems” each week. Not only does it keep people accountable for what they are working on, but it also provides total transparency. By adopting this in your own organization, you can create an environment where people really are busy doing meaningful work — not just cultivating perception.
Sometimes the need to be busy stems from a need for control. Do all the work (and get all the credit). But remember that being a leader is not grandeur — it is about helping others grow. So, delegate when you can and give people meaningful opportunities that will grow their responsibilities and skills.
If you want to be a great leader, you need to create an environment that is buzzing with purpose.
When you fall back on “busy!” as your go-to status, it signals to the team that they should do the same. And worse yet, that you are too busy to guide and provide input into their work. Distracted bosses are some of the most frustrating ones to work with.
So take steps to reject busyness as badge of honor. Choose real purpose instead and it will be clear where to invest your time.
How do you avoid the busy-for-busy sake trap?
Originally published on the Aha! blog