Busyness as usual

Avatar von Steffen Hartmann

Are you busy? I’m glad that you found some time to read this article. It has an average reading time of 10 minutes. Sounds like a short amount of investment in time.

But, likely, you will not make it till the end, some important messages are dropping in already in parallel, or your next meeting will start in five minutes. In this case, this article may end up on one of your reading lists for later. You want to read it when you have some time. How likely is it that you will find this time? How many articles or tasks are already waiting for this particular time slot?

So far, everything is busy as usual. You are busy as usual!

We are all busy – as humans

“How are you?” – “Fine, but very busy!”

How many of these or similar conversations are you having during a week or even a typical day? How many times are you giving similar answers to similar questions? We are all damn busy, and we like to tell it to anyone, regardless of asked or not. To get closer to the problem, we should consider one distinction. Why do we say we are busy, and why do we feel busy? 

Being busy is a dystopian status symbol of our fast living nowadays. Being not busy implies being lazy. People are starving for rest, but it is more comfortable to tell everyone about what needs to be done to deserve this rest instead of resting. Being busy is also used as an excuse for almost everything, the forgotten appointment, the missed call, or the late arrival. It is a reasonable excuse at any time. No one will question it because everyone knows how it feels to “be busy” from their experiences. Talking about being busy as a status or excuse creates a dangerous framing in our world. If you are not constantly busy, what else are you doing? Words create reality, a reality in which we need to be busy all the time to be part of it. 

In this reality, we all feel busy most of the time. Not only because we talk about it. We are also connected; at any point in time, we have some device to keep us busy, our laptop, smartphone, tv, or voice assistant. These devices send notifications constantly about what we need to do, should do, or just trivial information like the latest breaking news or a twitter notification to announce a new article like this one. This happens 24/7; we can barely escape it or don’t want to. Most of the time, it is our active decision to be connected to the speed of the world around us. This connection keeps us busy because this is what we used to be. Boredom feels terrible, and it has no good stories to tell. Boredom for us got just “unproductive” time. 

To get more stuff done and reduce unproductive time, we try to optimize everything around us to squeeze more and more time being busy out of our day. Getting things done, Zero Inbox, monitoring our sleep, and other methods help us use our time better and promise to achieve more in fewer hours. We are getting victims of an optimization culture; while we try to optimize ourselves and our surroundings, we are using way more energy on these optimizations than on making progress. Often this optimization bias is even an excuse to postpone tasks and decisions. Great, we are fully optimized but hardly moving. At least we have all the missed progress classified and organized; this keeps us busy. But in the end, this busyness is not creating value; it creates constant pressure and stress. But the great thing about this is we can talk to others about this and show how busy we are to keep our social status. 

Let us go back to boredom shortly because boredom has become an awful image in our world that never rests. It is often seen as “unused” or “unproductive” time. We don’t even know how to deal with it anymore; as soon as we experience “empty” time, anxiety kicks in. We can do so many things outside, but we are doing none; how can this be right? How can this be a wise use of time? We must get out of this boredom as soon as possible to feel productive and functional again. This is the productivity trap we are all stepping into many times. We can’t be effective if we are “not doing” anything. We are just unproductive slackers hanging around! Ultimately, we are missing something valuable because boredom or “non-stressed” time is when our brain can get some rest and creativity and new ideas can emerge. We are too busy for new ideas, and we try to avoid them because it seems like they are just adding more busyness to our lives. 

What happens to our brains when we are permanently busy? We are stressed all the time. Even if we are longing for rest, we barely get it. Because we treat it as something wrong or even harmful to our productivity. We ignore how this rest is a key to increasing our productivity and load capacity in the long term. Have you ever run a marathon? Even if the answer is no, you would agree that after running more than 40 kilometers, your body would deserve some rest and regeneration. Why do we not apply the same thinking to our mental load? We don’t treat it as likely, but we must start this. Our brains run marathon after marathon, but we don’t allow them to rest in boredom. Even if we begin to fight this need for rest and treat it like something unnecessary. We are pushing ourselves to exhaustion and even further. This isn’t productive, and this isn’t healthy. 

… and as organizations

Organizations are systems of humans, so every human flaw affects them similarly. We can negate this fact, but we can not deny reality. Being busy as an organization has the same downsides as it has for humans. Organizations also like to tell everyone how busy they are, working on new features, creating the next big thing, reorganizing, or transforming. There is no way of not talking about being busy in an organization. It is the same awkward status symbol but with an even more harmful impact. 

Because the feeling of being busy is genuine for organizations, there are many ongoing topics, things to do, and goals to reach. All of them look great on PowerPoint presentations shown in management meetings. To talk about being busy creates the feeling of being busy and productive, and as long as the opposite is treated as “standing still,” we need to play this game of constant overloaded roadmaps and project plans. We are trying to overcome reality by pushing it harder – but be aware the pressure is not creating diamonds; in the end, it creates frustration by unfilled expectations and burned-out people. It is lying to yourself and your organization. 

It is the same optimization trap that keeps organizations down. Improvement and transformation projects are treated as the holy grail of achieving more simultaneously. Everything is getting agile and adaptive to react faster. But the crucial truth and wisdom that comes with all these new methods like “stop starting, start finishing,” and “one thing at a time” are repeated but not recognized. They stay as empty words. Even more empiric knowledge, like the concepts of “cost of delay” or “switching time,” are well known but, in the end, often ignored. It is not about streamlining an organization’s outcomes or value. It is about chasing expectations set up in management boards and ignoring reality or operational knowledge. We are getting so busy changing and optimizing the internal and environmental factors that we make no progress on the outcome that needs to be achieved. We wonder why we lack this progress, and then the blame game starts.

Stop it! Get some help!

After all, it is up to you where you put your time as a human and as an organization. Organizations depend on humans, so it would be wise to take care of this human flaw and support people to get out of this busyness trap together. 

If you ask yourself, as a human being, how to start for yourself. First, get out of optimizing or finding time to do more. It is not you being inefficient or slacking around. It is an extrinsic pressure that catches you, and you think you must follow. It is not about that you follow the wrong time management methods or you just have not discovered them. It is not about getting up at five in the morning to make the best out of your day or working till late at night. It is not about using a different ToDo software or project management tool. Or generally said it is not about you, not at all.

There is one choice you can make: stop believing you can solve the cause of busyness by squeezing more into your day. This makes things worse, as you read in the past paragraphs. Ultimately, it is your choice to yield to boredom sometimes to give your brain a rest, focus on single topics, and define goals and purpose clearly. Also, it is your choice to stay in that hamster wheel called busyness. This is the hard part of being human, we have options for good and evil, but we must take them and deal with the results. 

Be aware that multi-tasking is a myth for humans and an organization. It seems easy to handle multiple topics simultaneously, but what to remember is that multi-tasking for humans is just working in quick sequences; it is impossible to multitask because our brains can’t multitask. When it comes to organization, this fact gets ignored – the idea is to split up the topic to multiple people and brains, and then multitasking suddenly seems possible. This sounds like a good plan initially, but at some point, we realize that topics and projects are not living independently in organizations; they are all connected and depend on each other. So multitasking is no longer an option; it is getting a necessity. Switching between tasks needs time and mental power, the so-called “switching costs”. These costs arise with every parallel topic you are pushing into a system. Likely they are getting ignored or not realized even if they are one of the main reasons for failing or delayed topics. It is not only about the amount of work but also how you structure and focus it. The goal is that plans reflect an organization’s reality and actual capabilities, not just wishful thinking.

Focus or chaos

First, this is a human choice; after all, it is also an organizational choice every leader must make. Focus or chaos. One thing at a time, starting much, finishing almost nothing, and creating output or outcome. Think about people as resources or humans and treat them accordingly. You can evaluate the value of an employee by billable hours or time spent in the office, or you can appreciate him for the talent and value that this person is bringing.

Value is more than just a price tag on a human resource; value is durable and reliable. Value is creating progress and not a standstill. In the German language, we have this beautiful word, “Wertschätzung,” which verbatim translates to “appreciating someone/something for the value he/she/it is bringing.” This appreciation is needed not only for others but also for you and your time. We need to relearn to appreciate our time and the time of others, even if it is not filled with busyness. Time is valuable. Four thousand weeks is the average time we have as humans in this world, and we should use them wisely. It is not about the billable weeks in life but the valuable ones. 

It is on you to change! It is an active choice you can make; it is your responsibility for you as a person and your organization as a leader!

Avatar von Steffen Hartmann


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