We live in busy world, and we seem to be proud of our busy-ness. How often, when we run into a friend, do we answer “How are you?” with “Really busy!” and a litany of all the things we have to do. And then our friend lists all the things he or she has to do, and only after ascertaining which of us is more impossibly busy do we move on to talking about the weather, sports, and our kids and/or pets.
Our employers, of course, like us to be busy. In most businesses it is standard practice to get by with as few staff as possible, and keep them as busy as possible. Especially when things get tight, companies focus on “right-sizing” and eliminating the “fat” from the organization. Multitasking is the skill of the day. In its literal sense it is almost impossible—we can’t actually do two (or more) cognitive tasks at once—but in the broader sense that we need to be adept at juggling a large number of tasks and switching between them smoothly and effectively, the ability to multitask is valued very highly. But are we multitasking, or simply being distracted?
As we have all experienced, the technologies that have arisen in the past 20 years to help us work more efficiently seem to have also made us more busy—we not only have more to do, but can (and must!) do it faster. Take email, for example. Your email inbox fills up much faster than the old paper inbox did, and the expected response time is often minutes, rather than a couple of days (in fact, let a couple of days go by and that email will be buried under an electronic avalanche).
Since just responding to (or just deleting) email has become almost a full-time job for many of us. Our workdays are being extended into nights and weekends, just to get the work done that we are too busy to do during the day. What is our busy-ness costing us?
Apart from the cost to our personal lives and relationships, which can be significant, we are losing the time to think deeply and creatively at work. To look into, imagine, even dream about the future of our work and the new directions—new products or services, for instance—that might be possible. And to connect that future with the present and the past, in order to visualize and build on a whole, rather than fragments. This is an opportunity cost that cannot be recuperated with constantly overflowing plates and 80-hour work weeks.
Dialing back on our busy-ness to enable this kind of creativity is not easy. In the first place, it takes a fundamental change in what we think of as “work”—time for thought and reflection is incompatible with busy-ness. If we are rewarded for being busy, we will be as busy as possible. But if we are rewarded for being thoughtful (and given the time to do it), we will be thoughtful.
The 24/7 demands of a global economy are not going away, and neither, of course, is email. But for businesses to succeed, they need employees who are not constantly overwhelmed and distracted. Employees should come fresh to work, and can think clearly and creatively. Therefore businesses should be mindful of employee workloads, and hire enough staff to get the work done well. They need to be mindful of distractions, and avoid unnecessary emails, meetings, and other “noise.” Most of all, they need—we need—to value thoughtfulness over busy-ness.
OVERCOMING BUSYNESS: Act Now