I bet you’re a busy person.  Don’t believe me, see for yourself…Does your task list equate to more hours than you have in the day? Do you routinely have to finish work in the evenings or on weekends just to keep your head above water? Are you often wanted in two places at once when really you wish you could just be at your desk getting something accomplished?  If so, you’re a busy person.

Being busy isn’t that big of a problem.  (It’s better than being superfluous, after all!)  The problem isn’t being busy, it’s feeling busy.  Feeling busy is bad for you, it’s bad for your teammates, and it’s bad for the quality of your work.  What’s the difference between being busy and feeling busy?

Being Busy Versus Feeling Busy

Being busy means that when I finish this task, there is another one waiting for me, and another one after that, and another one after that.  That’s not necessarily a problem.

Feeling busy means that as I do this task, I’m thinking about (or worrying about, or dreading) the next task; and while I’m doing the next task, I’m thinking or worrying or dreading the one after that.  Feeling busy detracts from your ability to do each task well. It also contributes to you feeling overwhelmed.

As hard as feeling busy is on you, it can be worse for your teammates.  Think about your interactions with your colleagues.  Which ones leave you feeling dissatisfied? I bet it’s the interactions with the people who feel busy, rather than with the colleagues who actually are busy.  That’s because the person who feels busy rationalizes why it’s ok for them to not really listen to you. The person who feels busy nods and says “uh-huh, uh-hun, uh-huh” to rush you along. The person who feels busy doesn’t take the time to explain to you what they are really thinking—let alone to give you any context that helps you see the big picture.

Don’t Make These Busy Person Mistakes

Mistake #1: Choosing the wrong things to do

[Delusional inner voice] “I’ll just do this first because it’s easy, I’ll do this thing because it’s quick, I’ll do this first because I enjoy it.” 

None of these is a good reason to start with a given task.  Instead, prioritize relentlessly. Know what MUST get done, what REALLY SHOULD get done, and what would be NICE to get done. Start with the MUSTs.

Mistake #2: Trying to do more than one thing at a time

[Delusional inner voice] “If I have 7 things to get done today, I’ll be able to leave sooner if I do two things at a time. Heck, I might be out of here early if I can do three things at once.” 

If two of the tasks on your list are “walk” and “chew gum,” you might be alright. If they are “attend team conference call” and “respond to emails,” you’re making a mistake by trying to do two things at once.  Instead, focus on one thing and do it until it’s done.

Mistake #3: Taking shortcuts in communication

[Delusional inner voice] “I’m in a hurry, so let me just hit the high points.” 

Busy person communication tends to be insufficient communication. It lacks context, detail, and confirmation. When you’re busy, instead of rushing through instructions, take a deep breath and tell the person what they need to know to do it right the first time.  Misunderstandings will only slow you down when you get questions or have to re-work something that missed the mark.

Mistake #4: Failing to listen well

[Delusional inner voice] “Yup, I got it. Yup, got it.  Alright already, what are you droning on about, I’ve got stuff to do!”

Busy-feeling people are terrible listeners.  If you’re preoccupied listening to your frenetic inner dialogue, you won’t have much bandwidth left for hearing someone else.  Instead, put down you phone, pause the internal soundtrack, make eye contact with the person who’s talking to you, and really absorb what they are saying. Repeat what you hear and check for understanding.  Feels slow, but in reality it’s fast.

Mistake #5: Leaving an open loop

[Delusional inner voice] “I’m too busy to follow-up after the fact…that was yesterday’s issue!”

Failing to close the loop on yesterday’s issue greatly increases the likelihood that it will also be tomorrow’s issue.  Did a teammate do something that wasn’t aligned with your thinking? (Probably because you did a shoddy job communicating what you wanted because you were in a rush.) If you just fix it and move on, you can be pretty sure they will make the same mistake again. No wonder you’re busy…you’re fixing the same issues over and over.

If you let your delusional inner voice rule the day, your teammates and your boss will get the impression that you’re very busy.  You might interpret very busy as very important, but they are more likely to interpret it as you being very scattered, frenetic, flustered, rushed, and sloppy.  The alternative is to get on top of your busyness by realizing the fastest path is to do one important thing at a time and be fully into it. That way, no one will think of you as busy, they will only think of you as efficient, focused, articulate, connected, and productive.

Further Reading

Killing your Busy Culture

Busy is a Self-Inflicted Wound

How to Build your Resilience