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Working Smarter to Reduce Busyness

Many high energy, highly successful CEOs, Founders, Entrepreneurs, and Leaders take pride in working hard and often long hours to meet their commitments and goals. After all, being busy looks productive so it's celebrated, recognized and rewarded. Has busyness become a status symbol? What is the cost? Does it increase stress? Is there ever enough time?

Managing time is one of the most common problems my clients are challenged with and much of it traces back to busyness. When businesses are mistaking activity for achievement, individuals in the business fall into the same trap. Too often putting in hours is equated with productivity rather than productive output! It becomes an even larger problem for SME businesses where staff are often smaller in numbers and non-productive work is not as easily absorbed into larger budgets and overhead costs.

In Beware a Culture of Busyness, author Adam Waytz says that when we see a strong effort by others, regardless of their output, it makes them "morally admirable" to us. This perpetuates the behavior of effort over output which when ingrained into our workplace cultures leads us astray with large opportunity costs.

While there might not be a direct connection between busyness and increased stress, since stress is very individualistic in nature and what causes stress in me might not stress you and visa versa, there is more clearly an indirect link. If busyness means key priorities are not getting the focus they require, this can lead to stress as missed commitments increasingly impact strategic execution.

A concern I often hear from leaders is that they don't have time to spend on strategic thinking. If time for strategic thinking and planning is replaced by the constant presence of busyness, a critical focus can be lost. It's important to get comfortable with personal time and space for thinking, even though it can feel like this is "dead space" or unproductive time. Research shows that unstructured time for strategic thinking can be the most productive in surfacing valuable insights as your brain transcends focus on the task in the present to a more creative level. How often do you gain insight when least expecting it, like when out for a walk?

Another negative result of busyness can be exhaustion which itself can be a contributor of stress and may trigger more serious mental health disorders.

While busyness can have important individual costs, the collective costs to the business organization may be substantial and include:

  • lost productivity;

  • reduced goal attainment;

  • increased financial costs, and

  • long-term damage to the culture and reputation impacting attraction and/or retention of staff.

Here are five strategies to start reducing busyness:

1. Creating Space Before Meetings

One easy change shared in How to Demonstrate Your Strategic Thinking Skills is to block time before meetings to collect your thoughts. This allows you to show up more prepared and more capable of synthesizing and sharing knowledge which can provide time and space to shape your own point of view on important issues. Sounds simple yet many don't practice this.

2. Protecting Your Schedule

In Why You Need an Untouchable Day Every Week, Neil Pasricha suggests,

"scheduling one “Untouchable Day” per week, where nothing can interrupt you — no texts, no e-mails, no phone calls, and absolutely no meetings"

which has become a better practice for most leaders from my experience. It may not even be a whole day and may require flexibility in shifting when it happens within the week. It is one of the most powerful practices in taking back control of our schedule which can help reduce stress.

3. Get Off the Clock

It can often be easier said than done to bring an end of work time when endless demands are awaiting. In Beware of a Culture of Busyness, Adam Waytz outlines that,

"research suggests that reducing working hours to manageable levels can enhance productivity"

Just like the human body repairs cells while sleeping, shifting away from busyness improves mood, motivation, and engagement by bringing balance to our overall life. Leadership is about modeling for others what we expect of self.

4. Saying 'No' More Often

When was the last time you said 'no' to any work task rather than just jumping in and doing it? In 9 Ways to Say No to Busywork and Unrealistic Deadlines, time management coach Elizabeth Saunders suggests saying 'no' more often can be part of the solution yet there are often times when it's not possible to simply say 'no'. An effective alternative is to delay saying 'yes' and/or negotiating the task, timeline and commitment to better align with your priorities. The critical question to ask yourself before saying 'yes':

“Is this the right investment of my time?”

5. Measure Plan Progress Weekly

A strategic plan is only as effective as it's used and shared with others as a tool for executing to reach goals. From my experience, busyness keeps too many business leaders from checking progress and alignment to planned goals as frequently as required. Once a year or even once a quarter is not enough. With today's technologies, measuring progress can much easier to track to the month and week. It's a practice I help businesses develop that is fundamental to executing on goals.

These five strategies to address busyness are only a starting point. If busyness is taking up too much of your time, the first step is recognizing it, the second step is committing to do something about it.

Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day regardless of position, role, responsibilities, etc. You have a choice every day, default to busyness and watch your stress increase as important goals get missed or take steps to align your goals with daily activity for increased business success. Busyness is a choice! By being agile and making small changes on a regular basis, busyness will be replaced by reaching more goals, more often.

Jerome Dickey, MA, ACC, CPHR, Q.Med


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