It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: what are we busy about?
- Henry David Thoreau
Several years ago I found myself seated next to an elderly gentleman on a cross-country flight. We struck up a conversation and I learned that he was Chairman Emeritus of the department of sociology at a prestigious east coast university. During the course of our conversation I asked him about the areas that were hot research topics when he received his Ph.D. in the 1950s and how the field had changed since. What he told me has fascinated me ever since.
The late 50s were a time in America that held great promise for a future that would be transformed by technology. This was the time of the famous “kitchen debate” between then Vice-President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. It was in the late 50s that the space race began and commercial travel by jet plane across the Atlantic was initiated. And, according to my seatmate, during this time one of the hottest topics in sociology was the question, “What will people do with all of their free time once all of these labor-saving devices become a reality?”
Talk about the law of unintended consequences! What happened of course is these “labor saving devices” produced not more free time but new ways for us to occupy our existing time.
Being a Southerner I am by my very nature friendly. I speak to just about everyone and usually ask how they are doing (which, when I moved to the Northeast many years ago, caught many people by surprise!). One of the things I notice is that, overwhelmingly, the most common answer I get to the question “How are you?” is one word. Busy.
In response to my last post where I described a CIO who spent an entire executive level meeting answering e-mail rather than engaging in the discussion, Paul Calento posted a question on the LinkedIn CIO Network that asked, “How do you stop your staff from checking e-mail during meetings?” The question generated a large number of responses suggesting that this is not only a widespread problem; it is something that most people recognize to be a problem.
The bottom line is we have an epidemic of busyness in our society today. The root of the problem is the false association of activity with accomplishment. Busyness has become a status symbol. We equate activity with self-worth. Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” has become “I do, therefore I am.” Combine this with today’s “always on” world of business and you have a recipe for non-stop stress.
While all of this has gotten exponentially worse over the past several years, the phenomenon is not new. In the mid-90s I attended a meeting of the top 100 research and development executives of the company I then worked for at a hotel just outside of London. The head of R&D posed a rhetorical question to the assembled group that stopped everyone in their tracks: “Is thinking working?” His point was, and it is even more relevant now that it was then, that as organizational leaders we generate value not through our manual labor but through our intellectual labor, and sometimes the act of simply thinking through an issue is the most productive work we will perform in the course of a day. That means that we have to be willing to put away the implements of busyness and do what only we as humans can do, create value by using our intellect.
So, how do we break this cycle? First, I highly recommend Thomas DeLong’s post The Busyness Trap, which provides some great insights. Second, here are a few suggestions of my own.