8/5/12 “Business and Busyness”

Good day, team.

This week’s challenge comes from the Harvard Business Review blog. I’m sharing the post, “Is Busyness Bad for Business?” written by Susan David, who is the founder and co-director of the Harvard/McClean Institute of Coaching and a member of the Harvard faculty, in its entirety:

“Michael is busy. For weeks he’s been rising early and getting home late. As division head, he’s used to the budget season bringing strain. But this year he’s been running the numbers — doing his ‘real work’ largely outside normal hours. His days are filled with meetings, often without clear objectives, and the invitations just keep coming in. To make matters worse, he’s been asked to complete seemingly redundant paperwork and grapple with ever-changing spreadsheet columns. The constant activity is taking its toll.

“Many of us can relate to Michael. The New York Times recently featured an essay in which writer Tim Kreider critiqued today’s ‘crazy busy’ lifestyle as unnecessary and destructive — a smokescreen designed to hide the fact that ‘most of what we do doesn’t matter.’ The piece received hundreds of comments and was in the ‘most viewed’ list for quite some time. He clearly hit a nerve.

“But what should organizations — people like Michael and those who manage him — read into that conversation? Is busyness bad for business?

“The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. While Kreider argues that we need a bout of idleness to get inspired and work more effectively, there is evidence that workers benefit from busyness. Take an experiment in 2010 by professor Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Hsee’s team found that people who kept themselves occupied rather than waiting idly after a test felt happier. Interestingly, participants in the study were not likely to busy themselves unless they could justify the activity; they weren’t interested in what Hsee and his colleagues call ‘futile busyness’. But the results showed that even futile busyness is better than idleness.

“In my organization’s own recent research with a global firm, we discovered that a common characteristic among the company’s great leaders was their recognition of the importance of busyness. They knew idle employees would suffer and so pushed to create a stimulating environment. For example, a leader responded to a downturn in work by encouraging team members to look for new projects that interested them and that might generate opportunities. Not only did this keep the group engaged, but some of the projects also eventually bore fruit. This wasn’t futile busyness, of course. ‘Creative busyness’ might be more appropriate.

“Indeed, busyness seems to be most productive when the tasks we busy ourselves with are also meaningful. In a 2008 MIT study, researchers investigated meaning by asking participants to build Lego models. Finished models were either kept, or they were disassembled in front of the participant and handed back for rebuilding. (This was called the ‘Sisyphus condition,’ after the mythical figure condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again). Even though the two conditions involved exactly the same type of work, participants in the ‘meaningful’ condition were willing to produce more models (and built them more efficiently, for a lower median wage) then those who mimicked Sisyphus. Surely Michael, who attends one meeting only to have another scheduled, and completes one spreadsheet only to be presented with new figures, is starting to feel like he’s pushing that boulder.

“Perhaps we are not so much caught in a ‘busy trap’ but a ‘meaning trap’. A meaningful life involves pursuing what we truly value, a sense of contribution in our work, as well as time outside of work to relax, enjoy hobbies and spend time with loved ones. It’s perhaps no surprise that the great leaders in our study were also expert at modeling work-life integration; they value busyness but also meaning. How did their emphasis on both impact the bottom line? Positively. Their teams were more engaged, their revenues were higher, and their turnover was lower than other groups.

“If you are responsible for keeping others ‘busy,’ consider the following:

  1. People have a fundamental need to feel competent. It’s your job to give them stimulating, meaningful work.
  2. Rather than waiting out a lull, encourage employees to be creative and proactive.
  3. Give them the time they need to complete key assignments. Don’t let meetings or inefficient work practices hijack their workdays.
  4. Help employees stay connected to the meaning in the work they do. Tie tasks to how they benefit the person, the team, the client, the organization.
  5. Consider what makes life, and not just work, meaningful. Make sure your team members have time for it.”

The above suggestions are part of your challenge this week if you manage others. If you don’t manage others, take a look at your own level of busyness. Are you feeling like Sisyphus, constantly pushing a rock uphill just to have it roll back down? Does your work have little meaning? Or are you having trouble connecting what you do to meaningful results for the company? Do you end up doing things over and over again without any change in the results? Or worse, with no real results at all? Start asking your boss to help you connect what you’re doing to the goals of the company. Change the way you do something if it’s become so mechanical that you could do it in your sleep. If you’re just going from one thing to the next without feeling inspired, ask your boss if you can work on another project or find a way to do something differently to rekindle that fire within you.

Sometimes we mistake busyness for being important. If you think you have to stay busy all the time to make others think you’re important, think again. Some of the best leaders build time into their day to be not busy, so they can digest what’s happened and make better decisions. If you’re too busy, you may not be giving enough attention to others, which sends the wrong message to your co-workers, customers and partners.

See if your busyness is adding value to your time or wasting it. If you feel “crazy busy”, ask yourself if things are truly crazy and that’s why you are so busy. If not, is being too busy making you crazy? Either way, find out if your busyness is worthwhile.

Have a good week!


Kathleen Doyle-White

Pathfinders Coaching

(503) 296-9249

© Copyright 2012 Pathfinders Coaching, Scout Search Inc., all rights reserved.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *