A Coaching Power Tool Created by Catherine Evans Joines
(Executive Coach, UNITED KINGDOM)
In today’s fast moving society, it seems that being busy is seen as a badge of honour, something we can be proud to claim. If you are busy, you must be doing something worthwhile, have people dependent on you – you are important. For some of us the need to be busy is like a compulsion; driving us forward to achieve, to do more, to create more. Often we are the go-to people when something needs to be done urgently, because as the well-known adage states “If you need something doing quickly, give it to a busy person”. We thrive on the endless to-do lists; take great pride in ticking those action items off. We can multi-task. We have it covered. You can depend on us.
But what if being busy is actually distracting us, masking what really needs to be done in order to reach our long-term goals? What if being busy is actually detrimental to us and is the thing that is preventing us from really reaching our true potential and achieving what we want?
Sometimes we need to take a step back from the mayhem and the hustle and bustle of our daily/working lives to examine what is really important. What are the key things we want to achieve? Once this is clear, we can then devise plans to reach those goals. But we must hold ourselves accountable to these plans. We must revisit them regularly, check in to see that we are on track. If we are not, we need to make adjustments. In short, we must be “focused” on what we want to achieve.
Of course, there are always two sides to every story, so let’s examine these two states, the state of busyness and the state of focus, in more detail.
So what is busyness?
Busyness can be defined as “a state of having a lot of activity, or of not being idle” (1). When you have a lot of tasks to do all at once, this is an example of busyness.
In today’s workplaces there are so many things to keep us busy: from the countless emails that need answering; to the sales calls that need making; to the presentations that need creating; to the briefs, papers and documentation that need writing and last but by no means least, to the meetings or webex calls that need attending. There is just so much that needs to be done, so many obligations to fulfil; and that is just in the working environment. When you add on top your personal commitments, from managing the home, to making your childcare arrangements, to grocery shopping, to fitting in exercise, to ensuring there is a meal (home-cooked or otherwise!) on the table each night, you can see how it really can become a juggling act, with your head flitting from one thought to another and you achieving one task after another. A constant cycle of do, achieve, tick-off, do, achieve, tick-off. It is no wonder that our standard response to the question “How are you doing?” is “I am SO busy”. Because we are!
What is driving this constant busyness?
According to Oliver Burkeman in his article for the Guardian (2) it is our socioeconomic system that relentlessly instrumentalises everyone, forcing us to become productivity machines valued by output alone. How many can of us can relate to that? In our performance reviews we are measured against achieving specific outcomes and reaching certain targets or Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). So in our best efforts to attain these goals we do all that we can to make them happen. We want our managers to see that we are taking action, that we are making progress, that we deserve the good appraisal, the promotion, the praise, the payrise. We are, after all, ambitious and want to achieve. We are determined to make it happen.
Busy. It’s about showing status. That if you are busy, you are important. You’re leading a full and worthy life. Ann Burnett, who studies how the language we use creates our reality, is noted as commenting in Brigid Schulte’s book “Overwhelmed: work, love and play when no-one has the time”. (3)
Being busy can be almost competitive. But is it more than just a competition or driving ambition that keeps us constantly on the go, like the hamster in his wheel? For some there is an underlying fear propelling us forward, keeping us busy – a compulsion. As Tim Kreider wrote in his article “The Busy Trap”(4), busyness is seen as a virtue and people are terrified of hearing that they may have empty time. According to Kreider, busyness serves as an existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness. Because if people have spare time, they are afraid that they will be redundant, surplus to requirements, obsolete. So we use the ever-filling inbox or needless webex meetings to enable us to feel like we are doing something worthwhile, that we are moving things forward. We are determined to fill every moment of our day. We need to be seen to be useful; to be adding value.
Benefits of being busy
As we have already seen, being busy can give us a sense of purpose and a structure to work within. Unfortunately, there are times in our lives when we just need to be busy. When we need to distract ourselves or separate ourselves from a difficult or troubling situation, for example, the death of a loved one, a relationship breakdown or a tricky work situation. Being busy and concentrating on the mundane, on the tasks at hand can be useful. It keeps us moving forward and enables us to feel that we have achieved something useful at the end of the day.
The Busyness Epidemic
However, being constantly busy is not necessarily a good thing. There is a price to be paid.
In his recent article John Brubaker reported that a recent Harris poll in the US found that the vast majority (86%) of Americans believe that the nation is suffering from a “busyness epidemic” (5). And alarmingly, 37% of us feel burdened by “busyness” during our holidays (5), a time when we should be resting and recharging our batteries so that we can continue to be effective in our work.
Unsurprisingly, much has been written on the increase in “busyness” in the western world and its impact on us. It can be very disempowering, leaving us feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what we perceive needs to be done. In some cases, it can actually be so overwhelming that it effectively paralyses us from taking action. Alternatively, it can stop us from seeing which is the correct path of action to take. We are just caught up in what “has to be done” that we forget to stop and assess what really “needs to be done”.
Not surprisingly, too much busyness can make us anxious and stressed. We can become snappy, short-tempered and irritable. Our internal negative self-talk often increases and we start to put more and more pressure on ourselves to make it work “If I can only get x done, then y will be better”. All of this can impact on our relationships with others, leading to an increase in miscommunication, which in turn adds to the stress and sense of frustration that we are feeling.
SEAt TIME ≠ PRODUCTIVITY
Fortunately, according to Kreider in his article “The Busy Trap” (4), much of our “busyness” is self-imposed and comprises of work and other obligations we have taken on voluntarily. It is worth noting the findings from Ray William’s article in Psychology Today on “Why ‘busyness’ is not productivity – doing more doesn’t result in better results” (6). Williams commented that “seat time” does not equate to productive work, especially for those in knowledge jobs. This means that some of the tasks that are keeping us busy and filling our working day don’t actually result in anything tangible, which would align with our overall goals and targets. One such example is the ever-filling inbox used as our to-do list. This is often used as a source of procrastination, to enable us to feel like we are doing something worthwhile, that we are moving things forward, when in fact all we are doing is putting something off and avoiding a certain task or action. We are busy but not achieving something that actually propels us toward our goals.
But what about the other side of the coin – focus. Let’s look at that now.
What is focus?
When we work with focus, we work with clarity. We know what is important and why we are doing specific tasks. When we focus we actually conserve energy, as distractions/deviations are minimised. Our energy is not dissipated onto other activities or irrelevant thoughts (7). Our attention and energies are fully directed to the task at hand and we are fully present in the here and now.
Through being focused and attentive we can achieve a state of flow. According to psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmikalyi’s (8) this idea of flow is an important concept in achieving increased productivity. It is also reported that working “in flow” enables you to perform effortlessly extremely well (9). So sustained focus helps us get more done, more easily and with less effort.
Sustained focus helps us get more done, more easily and with less effort.”My God, people are competing about being”
What does focus look like?
In order to be focused we need to have set clear boundaries, so that we truly can be fully present and engaged with the task at hand. For example,
- Several Companies now instigate a “no devices” rule for business meetings, so that external distractions are minimised. The focus is then fully on the discussions in that meeting
- Utilising “Out of Office” responses when on holiday so that you can focus on rest and rejuvenation, in order that you are effective upon your return to work.
- Blocking out time in schedules to perform certain tasks, so that that time is protected and without other distractions.
- Only reading emails 3 times per day so that you avoid the inbox-procrastination trick – remember your inbox is not your to-do list. Are you busy keeping busy? Or Busy and focussed on what you need to achieve to move yourself forward?
- No working on the weekend as this is dedicated family time – freeing up your mind to be fully present at home and providing a much needed break from work, so that you can return refreshed on Monday morning.
- No answering emails or work calls past 7pm as this is time to get dinner ready and spend time with your partner.
- 15-30 min dedicated play time with the kids without the TV or mobile phone nearby – your attention is fully on them (guilt-free) as you know the rest of the day has been devoted to work, so now this is your time with your kids.
- Having only 1 calendar (for both work and personal) this can help us dedicated set times to set activities without fear of a clash with the “other” calendar.
What is the impact of being focused?
When we work in a state of focus on a specific goal or outcome, it can move us forward quickly and purposefully. However, it can also blind us to opportunities. Michael Schein in his article “How being focused is keeping you from becoming insanely successful” (10) noted that distractions often lead to profitable cross-pollination and that we should be aware of possible opportunities at the edge of our area of focus. To overcome this “blinkers on” scenario, our new-found ability to be fully present in the here and now, actually enables us to approach situations with a curiosity that will serve us well in becoming aware of the opportunities and possibilities that could arise.
So in addition to be being fully present in the moment and the curiosity about and enhanced awareness of possibilities that are out there, focus enables us to achieve more of the things that matter to us. Our productivity at work increases. We can see the progress we are making toward our bigger goals or dreams. Because of this we feel a greater sense of accomplishment and we become motivated to keep going. We have clear work/life boundaries, which enable us to be fully present and engaged either at work or at home, without feeling guilty that we should be doing something in the other domain. We can see the path ahead of us and our decision-making abilities improve as does our ability to articulate what we want and need. Our overall communication with others improves. We are calmer and more present in the moment. We become less stressed and our self-respect and self-confidence increase.
Armed with this knowledge, We have a choice. We can choose to continue to work from a state of busyness or look at the alternative and choose to work from a state of focus.