On being busy

There’s nothing like a Thanksgiving week away from work (and full of quality time with my family!) to reflect on the value and risks of being busy.

On Being Busy

A few months ago (when I started this post!) there was been a flurry of articles on the topic of being busy.  The first one that I read was on the Harvard Business Review blog entitled Please Stop Complaining About How Busy You Are, by Meredith Fineman.  The main takeaway is that making ‘busy’ a central message in conversation essentially shuts down meaningful exchange.

Just a few days later, the thread continued on The Week, where blogger Carmel Lobello wrote a piece entitled The worst word in business: ‘Busy’: Why it’s time to stop talking about how swamped you are.  Leading with ‘busy’ is a ‘conversation killer’, and make you ‘seem ineffective’, and ‘can actually damage your ability to connect and interact with people, which is bad for all aspects of life’.

In an article entitled The Ultimate Sign of Success: An Open Calendar in Fast Company in the preceding week, Laura Vanderkam writes that ‘Everyone has a million things to do. The ultimate sign of success is having a million things to do but only doing a few of them.’

What’s Lost?

I’ve always prided myself on being busy at work. If something is moving slowly, I find somewhere else to help. The saying “If you want something done, give it to someone who is busy” always made sense to me. I had a boss who once told me that I operate at a different level of RPMs than most of the people around me, and that has always been something I was proud of. I believe that my energy and willingness to take on new things has been a critical part of my success.

But when I think about the criteria outlined in Vanderkam’s article, I’m not a success!  My calendar is really full … and in spite of my effort to protect chunks of thinking time, I do feel like I can’t grow my team and their skills fast enough to delegate and get on with the generation of more new ideas and solutions.

In fact, there is plenty of research that shows that being too busy can ultimately make you less effective, because it prevents you from being productive and creative.  Furthermore, if you’re always heads-down on the task at hand, you may miss the big picture, or new opportunities.

Reclaiming Slow

If you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
– Lily Tomlin

In October I had lots of fits and starts in my schedule with travel, switches between time zones, and more travel. That disruption afforded me some time to read that I don’t seem to find in my regular work week. So I re-opened the book Flourish by Martin Seligman, who is one of the founders of the positive psychology movement.  He describes a number of conditions for achievement, including being fast and slow in how we approach problems.  That is, if we absorb and process quickly … and then we can use the remaining time to use our right-brain skills – connecting ideas, looking for patterns, and so on. Being fast alone is not enough.

Perhaps more importantly, a rush to the finish misses the point.  Doing more, going faster, getting ahead … research has shown unequivocally that at some point, making more money doesn’t make you more happy.  And accomplishment without purpose is a never-ending journey for more and more and more.

So how, exactly, do you go about reclaiming slow? Seligman took lessons, actually, in which he read one page (yes, a page, not a chapter) of a book at a time and reflected on it, and he practiced meditation.  I’m not sure I could do that without some serious hand-holding!  But a number of years ago, I was very blessed to work with a life coach who encouraged me to keep a gratitude journal.  You can read more about that coaching experience here.  Today, finding small things to appreciate everyday remains one of the practices that keeps me positive, helps me slow down, and remember what’s important.  I also keep a blog called Faerie Wigs, where I post pictures and quotes which keep me focused on what matters most.  In fact, in Flourish, Seligman points out that using a gratitude journal has more lasting power than any other means of seeking happiness.

Having kids has been instrumental in shifting me from workaholic to a more balanced self.  In a lovely piece called The Day I Stopped Saying Hurry up in The Daily Good, Rachel Macy Stafford takes lessons from her young daughter to be reminded that “things taste sweeter and love comes easier when you stop rushing through life.”  If you like the messages in that piece, you might also enjoy Momma Zen: Walking the Crooked Path of Motherhood by Karen Maezen Miller and The Gift of an Ordinary Day by Katrina Kenison, which had similar themes.

Will the slow survive?

Although taking time to snuggle with my young kids seems almost too obvious for words, I’ll admit that I struggle with how to apply these ideas in the business setting.  It’s hard to imagine that being slow would be a good idea!

For those of us trying to carve out space for slow in the business world, the reality is that saying no is vital. I had a senior executive tell me that once, and it still resonates.  In a recent coaching hour, Patty Azzarello talked about the need for ruthless priorities, and since ‘strategy is where you put your resources’, you have to actively commit and protect time for those things that are most important, or they will not get done well.  Coming back to Seligman (and the work of Daniel Kahenman in Thinking Fast and Slow), the point is not to be slow all the time, but rather to be aware enough to make room for the right approach at the right time.  Even at the office.

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