Technology, Cloud

The busyness epidemic

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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. 

  1. 1. You are not that important!  Come to grips with this.  None of us are indispensible.   Sure, if you are the sole proprietor of your company and something happens to you the company may fail, but most of us work in large companies where we do not have to make all of the decisions.  I frequently spend time counseling people who have been downsized into unemployment.  Most of these people are senior level high achievers.  Their initial reaction is shock, surprise and sometimes anger.  When one probes these feelings, almost universally you find that they are shocked because they believe that the company needs them to succeed and angered because the company doesn’t realize this.  Their anger turns to despair when they realize that someone at their former company thought all of this through and that the company will continue in their absence.  This, in fact, is one of the most difficult things displaced executives have to deal with before they can move on and it frequently turns out to be a great learning experience.
  2. 2. Delegate wisely. Focus on doing the things that only you can do.  Surround yourself with good people, delegate to them and trust them. 
  3. Set boundaries for your staff.   After delegating be clear about what you need to know and when you need to know it (Everything isn’t acceptable!).  Set rules about what type of e-mails you need to be copied on and, most important, what you do not want to be copied on.
  2. 3. Develop a “to don’t” list.  We all have “to do” lists but we all need to be specific about what we will not do.  For instance, one of my “to don’t’s” was taking cold calls from salespeople.  These can be a huge time waster.  The same goes for meetings where you have no clear role other than being invited as a courtesy.  Don’t go.  Michael Hyatt wrote an excellent blog on this subject recently, which I highly recommend.
  2. 4. Finally, and most importantly, understand what you are missing because of your chronic busyness. How many family events are you missing?  Are you available for your kids or parents? Understand that, once your kids are grown or your parents deceased, you can never recapture those missed moments.  As a friend of mine is fond of asking, “Are you giving your best to the people who will cry at your funeral?”  Think about that.
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Daniel Bobke 7 Points | Mon, 08/29/2011 - 16:22

The adage I like to live by is "No one ever says on their death bed 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'" I think your point about self-importance is the biggest factor. Men specifically get much of their identity from their work (first question when a man meets another man - "what do you do?"), so the busier they are the more value they appear to have. We have been sold a bill of goods on that point for sure.

There is value in being available - to listen, to absorb, and sometimes to act - for other people. We seem to have missed the other adage that has been part of our technological revolution - "Work smarter, not harder."

John Dodge 1530 Points | Tue, 08/30/2011 - 12:52

That's a good point self-importance and one that takes many men years to get over if they ever do. Just look at Dick Cheney shilling his new book...the man reeks of ego. What I really like about most or all of Joel's observations is his perspective on life as well as work. Much of that comes with years in the workplace...I laugh now thinking back 25 years and wanting to punch my boss in the nose (actually, the one I am thinking of handsomely deserved it). I never get steamed about work. anymore. Excited, yes....worked into a lather, no.

I think working smarter is being recognized in workplace more and more. Younger generations are not buying much of the Calvinistic/Puritanical nonsense that we boomers are stuck with..,..and they are just as productive if not more so....but wisdom only comes with professional wins and losses.            

John Dodge 1530 Points | Mon, 08/29/2011 - 13:00

Years ago, I knew a guy who `worked' as a manager for the phone company when it was The Phone Company. He used to regale us in stories how he never did anything. The key to his success/survival and what made him look busy was walking around with a clipboard wherever he went. Sort of funny actually and much harder to get away in these lean times... 

Paul Calento 255 Points | Mon, 08/29/2011 - 00:27

Too often our organization's reward the wrong behavior. Look busy and reap the benefits, believe many. This organizational myopea is too common and not just among bad managers/bosses. That's why many top IT pros/CIOs are coveted by their peers and competitors more than their own companies. Execute against a goal, rather than just against a process.

--Paul Calento

(note: I work on projects sponsored by and HP)

Pearl Zhu 90 Points | Sat, 08/27/2011 - 16:31

HI, Joel, as always, wise blog, to advise executives about the priority, effectiveness and self-awareness in today's busy modern life, sometimes managing a "to do" list is easier than "not to do" list, just like those ebbs and flows of water, the life should be running with its natural rhyme.