Constantly busy – is it truly a badge of honour?

Let me take you back around 15 years ago I was a young ambitious senior manager close to burn out and extremely stressed.  My manager at the time was loading me up with work.  I had 10-12 projects on the go. The issue however was not him; it was ME. I could not say “no”. For me saying no was in some way acknowledging that I was inadequate and not good enough. I was already working 12-14-hour days and weekends, and still struggling.

I was driven by an empowering belief that said – “There is always a way if you look hard enough”. But when coupled with my ambition, this belief was actually not serving me well.

If you have ever felt like this or if you know someone who is always busy, then read on.

We deal with all sorts of clients, and some organisations definitely suffer from what I call a ‘CULTure of Busy’.

Busyness is everywhere. Only a few years ago if I emailed a business contact, they would respond the same day. A few years later they would respond within a week. Going forward a few more years, sometimes a response would arrive a couple of weeks later, if at all they felt a response was needed.

When you attend a meeting, it is quite normal for people to mention that they are in back-to-back meetings. It takes weeks to organise a meeting as everyone is so busy. There are certain times when everyone is busy and that is normal and understandable. However, if you are busy all the time, there are major issues at play which will impact your career, your focus, your drive and your passion for your work.

The funniest thing is when you ask someone how they are, they say almost with a combination of fatigue and pride that “They are extremely BUSY”. It is like a badge of honour. It is now a standard response to the question “How are you?”

Let me take you back to my burnout episode. When I get stuck with issues like this, I typically seek the counsel of those older and more experienced than me. My usual go to person is Ray Cao, my more experienced colleague at the time. When I shared my predicament with him, he said, “If you are busy all the time, it means one of the following:

  1. You don’t know how to say no.
  2. You are inefficient.
  3. You do not know how to delegate work.
  4. You are not good at prioritising your work.”

He then softened the blow with a brilliant suggestion. He told me to take my list of projects to my manager and ask for his opinion as to what was important to him. It was a great conversation. My manager actually did not realise I had so much work on my plate. Since I kept agreeing to do all the work thrust my way, he naturally assumed that I had it all under control. Soon after this discussion, my list of projects reduced considerably and I was able to deliver the projects on hand with greater effectiveness. There was more transparency that set in with regard to the work I was doing and managing. So, what was the secret to this tectonic shift in my favour? Was it the discussion I had with my manager? Well, it was much more than that.

It was learning to manage the most valuable resource – TIME.

People have varying degrees of wealth, health, intelligence, etc. But one aspect that everyone has at the exact same allocation is Time in the day or week.  The issue is where and how you invest this resource.

Around 10 years ago I was at a client meeting. Suddenly the room started spinning and I almost fainted. The last time I had fainted was when I was 12 years old and I had skipped breakfast and lunch. I went to the doctor and discovered that my blood pressure was 155/110. Like most people my mindset was that these afflictions happen to others and not me. My doctor went on to explain how your veins/arteries get clogged and how eventually they could explode and get a stroke or a heart attack, especially when you are stressed.

While I was desperately looking for a genial solution to ensure my health was in check while my work got done well in time too, I remembered the long-forgotten phrase by General Dwight D Eisenhower – “What is important is seldom urgent and what is urgent is seldom important.” This led to him creating he Eisenhower matrix that helped easily decide the urgency of a task and its importance.

Let me explain this Eisenhower matrix and how it can impact your organisation.

  1. Deception

Urgent, But Not Important

There may be a situation when you feel you should respond to an email straight away just because it has arrived in your inbox, even though you may be working on more important tasks. There may be times when you receive a phone call in the middle of an important task from your child or your aged parent who just wants to say Hi! It may not be important to answer the call and you know that well, but somehow it seems urgent.

There may even be times when you are asked to take up an urgent task with a soon approaching deadline just because you have the skills required to finish it well. It may nowhere be close to important for you or the organisation, but its urgency could mean it is important for someone else. Does your saying a “no” make a serious impact on the business? Else, you can very well decline the task and get going with your work that is important to you and your organisation.

  1. Necessary

Urgent & Important

Note this very carefully. This is your day job – be it preparing reports, presentations, achieving sales/revenue, handling customer complaints, crisis management, etc. On the personal front, these may include paying bills like electricity and telephone before the due date, etc. Nothing should deter you from completing these tasks on time.

  1. Waste of Time

Neither Urgent Nor Important

Leave all the unwanted and meaningless conversations and gossip, and unnecessary activities to pass your time during important productive hours of a workday in this box. Even if you have checked everything in the first two boxes, which are Urgent, but not important and Urgent & Important and still have time on hand, the fourth box which includes all Strategic action plans has all the items that need your attention as they are important to you and weigh more than the items that you list under the Waste of time box.

  1. Strategic

Important, But Not Urgent

This box includes competitor analysis, strategizing, finding ways to exceed customer expectations, engaging staff to go above and beyond, improving process efficiency, and staff development. On the personal front, it is about self-development, exercise, quality time with loved ones, focus on healthy habits, etc.

After all, personal time may not be urgent, but it sure is important.

While work related activities may torpedo this important time, make it explicitly clear because the audience who send in the emails are still stuck in Quadrant 2 where what they are working on is Important & Urgent for them and which is tiding over their personal time too.

You may not find time to exercise everyday but building a healthy routine to include weekly exercises is important to keep your health under check. You may not enjoy watching the news every day, but an occasional peek at what’s happening in the world helps you make intelligent and more informed decisions.

My blood pressure issue was caused by spending time in quadrants 1,2 & 3 but not enough on Quadrant 4 (Strategic).  Once I hit a crisis point, I shifted my focus to include meditation, changed my diet, worked on managing my stress levels, etc.  The key point I want to make here is that just how neglecting the Strategic elements caused disease.

And this is not just limited to an individual.

The CULTure of busy can cause organisational disease. In fact, it will increase the number of issues that arise in Quadrant 2 (Necessary) such as customer issues, complaints and crisis management – inefficient processes that will add to your organisation’s time and costs.

Keeping your staff busy and overworked all the time does not really move the wheel of progress forward. In reality, it keeps your business stuck in one place and only keeps the circular movement of everyday mundane tasks going. What your business needs is a workforce that works efficiently within the stipulated work hours. It has also been scientifically proven that the most brilliant ideas have always struck when the mind is at ease after a turbulent focus on something important. Once this culture of efficiency sets in, then your organisation has set the wheel of success and innovation in motion.

When your staff are too busy, are they truly catering to your customer experience strategy? Are they effectively driving your CX program? Probably they are too stressed with the unnecessary that they are failing in managing critical aspects of their job.

I know of a fairly large organisation that prides itself in what they call ‘regular review meetings’. The staff have (brace yourself for this because it is exhausting even for me to write it) Daily Review Meetings, Weekly Review Meetings, Fortnightly Review Meetings, Monthly Review Meetings, Quarterly Review Meetings, Half Yearly Review Meetings and Annual Review Meetings. While this may work for a few types of projects, the staff are truly showing signs of exhaustion and burnout with just the sheer number of meetings they have with the same manager over and over and over again. The obvious issue is that with so many meetings, when do you actually have time to do actual work? How many of these actually fall in Quadrant 1 (Deception) is a guess I leave up to you.

The only antidote to this unhealthy CULTure of Busy in an organisation is to ensure you have your work cut out with just the right amount of time and focus it needs from you.

So, when you feel you are extremely busy all the time, ask yourself the following 5 questions:

  1. Do I have an issue saying “no”?
  2. Am I inefficient?
  3. Am I delegating enough?
  4. Do I have an effective method to prioritise my tasks?
  5. Am I investing enough time in the Strategic Quadrant?

Article by Christopher Roberts

Published in the May 2021 edition of Moneywise Magazine.