For many of my C-suite clients, an average day might look like something like this. Wake up at 5:00 am, hit the gym, arrive at the office ready to work by 7:00 am. Grab a cup of coffee, reply to a few emails, get a bit of work done, and put out any fires. By 8:00 am, your day is in full swing, with back-to-back meetings and calls, maybe a trip to the airport and a flight to another city for a meeting the next morning.
We all have busy stretches at work, but if your life resembles the scenario I’ve just described, it comes with several drawbacks.
Drawback #1: ‘Being busy is a form of laziness’
In The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss writes that “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.” The days of talking about how busy as a badge of honor are over. In our work with senior executives, the time-starved leader may be someone working in an organization that is facing headwinds, has over committed, or is simply in a workplace culture that is ‘always on.’ What’s also true is that many of us who are always busy may also struggle to delegate, to say no, to make tough choices, or to prioritize. Simply put, being busy is not a sign of success; it may be a reflection of deeper challenges at the individual or organizational level.
Drawback #2: Being busy creates attention residue.
What’s residue in the context of busy leaders? It’s how the tasks, ideas, or actions from the last meeting are still swirling around in your head when you start the next one, forcing the brain to multitask and work much harder to get things done. The more residue, the more challenging it is for leaders to make decisions, focus, and operate at their best, according to research on the subject. Here’s where things get tricky, particularly for those of us who love to check things off our ‘to do’ lists. When you’re busy, even when you’ve completed the task, the residue is still there, because it isn’t enough to just finish something to get rid of it. What’s needed is an ability to concentrate on one task at a time, and fully transition from one task to another, which means building in enough pause, space, and buffer into your day to be able to do so.
Drawback #3: Being busy prevents deep thinking.
The biggest drawback that comes with an overly packed schedule is that it prevents deep or slow thinking, or an ability to intensely focus on one thing at a time. Busy schedules tend to encourage fast thinking, and slower thinking activities (writing, brainstorming ideas, deeply looking into an issue or challenge you’re facing) that create insights and good ideas may get shortchanged.
Take action to eliminate the drawbacks and consider where you can take back control
For many, the fourth quarter of the year is the busiest time of year. Even if you’ve got very little flexibility to make changes on your calendar for the immediate time being, consider what you can do now.
- Audit yourself. If nothing else, take a fresh look at what you really spend time on. Think of your calendar like a closet: If you don’t clean it up once in a while, it can get messy quickly. Take time periodically to ‘clean the closet’ and get rid of some of the junk on your calendar.
- Say yes slowly. If you’re going to say ‘yes,’ ask a few questions first before committing. Author Michael Bungary Stangier writes in his terrific book, The Coaching Habit, “A Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.” In other words, when you say to something, you’re saying no to something else, so recognize the trade-offs and implications of saying yes before you commit. Before you agree, ask yourself, “If I say yes, what will I say no to?”
- Chunk out tasks into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ ones. You may naturally save busywork or easier tasks for times in the day when energy is lower, so balance things out by also setting aside slow thinking time. For some of us, even when we do block off time on the calendar, we may struggle with using that time productively. If this is you, set aside smaller ‘white space’ chunks of time to strengthen your concentration muscles. Read books, write something, take on tasks that force deeper work and thinking time.
Leaders are promoted because they are so good at getting things done, being productive, and knowing what to prioritize. The irony is that the more successful and busier they get, the harder it becomes to do those very same things. The good news is that small changes produce outsized results – even an extra hour or two of time and deeper thinking can produce tremendous results for your organization, and for you.