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Let’s Stop the Glorification of Busy


I couldn’t help noticing on the news recently that senior politicians in China and Malaya have been criticized by the press for not being seen to be visiting the distraught relatives of the passengers of flight MH370.  I could help asking myself why anyone in that situation would want a visit from a politician.  The politicians are no more informed as to the fate of the missing plane and would, inevitably come with a massive coterie of security and media to invade the privacy of the families.  It might look “proactive” but frankly, it wouldn’t actually achieve anything.

This got me thinking about the general glorification of ‘busy’ in all its manifestations.  To that end I’d like to raise a couple of little observations:

1. A browse through the job adverts for managers rapidly shows that the development of ‘strategy’ is a constant requirement for many roles.  In fact, a quick search of just one major recruitment consultancy’s website produced 64 jobs where ‘the development of strategy’ was a key component of the full-time role.  Yet the OED definition of ‘strategy’ is A plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim”.  Whilst constantly developing new strategies might make a manager look busy, I can’t help wonder whether it actually achieves anything.  Consistently creating new strategies means ditching the old ones and that simply makes the people who work for that manager feel that as soon as they get settled into a pattern of working someone changes it.

2.  Perhaps related to the last line of point 1 is my next observation.  Many people I meet constantly comment on how busy they are.  Sometimes this is voiced as a complaint and sometimes it is a ‘justification’ for not having done something that I had asked them to do or that they ‘wanted’ to do.  Sometimes it is said with a degree of pride.  However, the same people often say that they feel as if they simply going through the motions; their constant and extreme busy-ness isn’t actually getting them, or anybody else for that matter, anywhere.  Another reason for this busy-ness over achievement may be related to the culture of time-spent.  Rus Slater, in his book ‘Getting Things Done’ points out that we often get into this habit at an early age; “Do an hour piano practice, then you can play,” says the parent using the recommended effort and consequent reward method.  The child hits keys for an hour but is focused on the clock, not the melodic sound created.  As the minute hand hits the magic number, the child zooms off to the playground or the Playstation.  This conditions us as adults to the same sort of behaviour at work; “Be here doing something for 40 hours a week and we’ll give you £XXX in return”. People’s work is often ‘measured’ by time or activity not output, of course they are going to be busy, but they may not actually be productive.

3. An irony is that modern technology is meant to make us more productive, but the most recent big study suggested that the majority of managers spend up to 28% of their time reading and answering emails. That’s eleven and a quarter hours a week!  Obviously much of this email traffic is important stuff, but if we assume that just 5% of it is stuff we don’t actually need to read, CCs BCCs and just junk, then we are wasting half an hour a week on this alone.  Then if we accept that we compose an email at 20 words a minute and speak at  160 words per minute we can see that, if we picked up the phone or walked down the corridor and actually talked to someone rather than emailing, we could be much less busy and much more productive.

So let’s try to break the glorification of busy; then we might actually be productive enough to justify going home at 5.30 and improving our work/life balance as well!

3 Responses

  1. Busyness

    I was thinking about this very thing on my way to work today. What is the first thing we ask work colleagues when we meet them – are you busy? Well what are they supposed to answer to that! No is not an option and yes just contributes to that culture of busyness you describe. I will ban that question from my repertoire from now on.

  2. Great point Catherine! I

    Great point Catherine! I agree completely – surely a better question would whether they feel like they are making a difference – being busy doesn't mean you're doing a great job unfortunately. While there's nothing wrong with hard work, my thoughts are that smarter working is more effective. 

  3. Catherine


    Another alternative is

    "Can I have five minutes?"

    ….it is almost impossible for anyone to say that they cannot give you five minutes sometime in the day (unless they are off site and that is what phones are for!)

    Rus Slater

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