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The “busyness” trap

Last updated on
May 2, 2019

In our hyper-connected society, busyness is worn like a badge of honor. Ask anyone how they are and there’s a good chance they’ll reply, “Really busy.” Corporate culture has created a monster; an environment where we often feel rushed and stressed, jumping from one task to the next – with very little of actual substance to show for it at the end of the day.

Have you ever looked back at your past working week and wondered what you accomplished? How much of what you did actually mattered? Whether you applied the skills you were hired to use? It’s a phenomenon we like to call the “busyness trap”, and we need to talk about it.

Why are we so busy?

In the workplace, busyness takes many forms. It’s the act of jumping from task to task because we think we have “too much to do”. It’s responding to emails as soon as they come through, rushing through replies with a manic sense of urgency; it’s sitting fretfully through meetings, even though our presence adds absolutely nothing. Busy people might think they’re getting things done, but in fact the opposite is true – and they feel constantly maxed out without any real sense of achievement.

How did we – and our working culture – come to view busyness so favorably? Ego certainly comes into play. Being busy (and telling everyone how busy we are!) is a way to communicate how influential and important we are, but it’s also a way to persuade ourselves that we’re valuable and useful. Then there is the very real pressure – especially for agency workers – of job stability. If no new work is coming your way, you become an expensive and unnecessary resource; a drain instead of an asset. Within agency culture, with its set workflow streams and turnarounds, working too efficiently can actually be seen as a problem.

So at work we try to be visibly busy, typing frantically whenever the boss walks past, or replying to emails late at night to show our dedication. Our phones are always in hand. And this concept of busyness can be infectious. When we hear how busy other people are, it feeds into our own need to feel busy – and the more we talk about how busy we are, the more we’re convinced of it. We feel so busy that when we do have free time we spend it in mechanical activity, scrolling through social media or vegging out in front of the TV, rather than doing something that will actually benefit us.

The problem with busyness

Busyness isn’t aspirational – it’s harmful. Busyness kills creativity and productivity. It chips away at our connectivity, slowly and insidiously, and before we know it we feel empty and drained without knowing why. We’re exhausted at the end of the week, but we have nothing real to show for it. We’ve lost our ability to be present, to be conscious, to know how to truly relax.

If you look at the activities that keep you busy at work, they will likely all have something in common: they all fall under the category of “shallow work”. These are low-value, repetitive tasks that don’t produce anything meaningful – and more often than not, we don’t even need to do them. The world won’t implode if you don’t instantly reply to that email. Boring admin like time tracking can be easily outsourced. It really is OK to say “no” to meetings and other people’s small requests.

Aside from killing our motivation, busyness also wreaks havoc with our ability to focus. Many people multitask because they believe they will get more done, but in reality few things kill productivity like multitasking. Every time you jump from one task to another, you brain takes around half an hour to refocus. In a state of constant busyness, we are leaking tons of our own productive time – by being immediately available, perpetually distracted, spreading our attention across too many things.

Then there's the huge negative impact busyness has on company culture. The need to be seen to be contributing – to prove your usefulness – has led to the mounting problem of "presenteeism". It's the hollow practice of staying late at work to show your dedication, without necessarily achieving anything productive in those extra hours. The need to be seen as busy is a sad expression of a culture with zero trust; one that equates presence with productivity. And ultimately, that's a sure marker of a broken company culture.

Choosing productivity over busyness

The key thing to be aware of is that busyness isn’t a means to productivity – it’s an obstacle to it. Many of the most productive people in the world – like Einstein and Darwin – only worked for a few hours each day, yet they achieved some of the greatest things imaginable. When we’re perpetually occupied, it's impossible to reflect on what truly matters and whether our efforts actually contribute to something useful. And this is the crux of the issue – choosing to work with impact.

When we achieve something that we personally deem useful or worthwhile, we feel a profound sense of achievement and satisfaction. This is one of the many perks of “deep work”, the act of focusing on tasks that are genuinely significant for extended periods without interruption. Knowing we’ve accomplished something of value adds purpose and meaning to our lives; there’s an emotional connection to it, something that’s absent in the shallow work that keeps us so busy. Unsurprisingly, busy people are often incapable of performing deep work.

At the end of the day, we’re all human beings searching for a meaningful connection, and busyness shields what’s right in front of us. We’re looking outside ourselves for meaning when we should be looking inside. We all need to stop being so busy – or more importantly, trying to be so busy – and weed out the mindless and menial from our schedules, so we can focus on being present instead.

Cut out the meaningless tasks that keep you busy – starting with these 10 common culprits.

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