The Danger of Busyness

Then and Now

In the past, industrial work was just like cooking. You go to work, spend time working, and then see the result. There was a direct, linear function between work and results. Want more results, put in more work. Being busy was a sign of being involved in delivering more results. Simply, work equals results.

For many of us, we operate in a predominantly knowledge-based world. Which means that the final result of our work is not always visible. We contribute with ideas, work, creativity maybe and then at the end of the day we sign off (or do our best to sign off) but there is not always an indicator to tell us how much we have achieved on that day. There’s no number to quantify the result. All we have is some hours of work. So, we made up a metric for this situation: being busy. Our degree of busyness.

How to Make Sense of Work

Value. We are all part of very complex production or delivery chain which makes it hard to understand what our contribution is. What do we actually do? Even better what’s our added value?

We can only understand which activities add value only when we know what the value is for our customers. Are we adding value to that flow or are we sometimes just a blocker? Do we generate value or just costs? There are studies showing that only about 20 of that busyness is actually valuable. Acknowledging that could change a lot.

Reflect. The previous statement probably made you think. We should give ourselves more moments to just reflect at our role and contribution. Involving others in this process can add some external input into how we perceive ourselves as being valuable. This could be an informal process or a very formal one. Every two-three weeks you can schedule a meeting with key stakeholders for your project and try to see how you can improve the way you’re working. Simple things that would fit naturally into your day to day routine. Even if it is common sense, it helps to have a formal process around it. This reflection can help you refine how you’re adding value, help your stakeholders see your value, and also make you feel better about your contributions.

Empowerment. People operate at different levels of freedom. The more freedom they have, the more decisions they make with the goal of adding value. Our ability to make decisions is where we add true personal value. Dedicate some time each day to deal with all of your necessary work and make a conscious decision to spend more time on value-adding tasks.

Focus. There’s a direct relationship between efficiency and the number of tasks or projects we have to focus on. Working on multiple projects in parallel – while required by the nature of our work – has a disastrous effect on efficiency. If you have to work on multiple tasks, as much as possible do that in a sequence rather than at the same time. It will give you focus, depth, understanding, new perspectives and increased efficiency. Focus on doing things because we need its outcome, rather than because it needs to get done.

Metrics. How many emails you send every day is not your metric. Nor is the number of hours spent in a meeting. We need to come up with some indicators and metrics to track the result of our work. Not the work itself (that’s easy!) but the result of that work. The outcome!

It is not easy, and this is why measuring productivity for office or knowledge work is hard. But not impossible! Break down the deliverables, use relative metrics to compare, use points or whatever you want to call them, but find a way to track the result, the deliverables that our teams are producing. Just put a number on what you achieved today!

So, where’s the danger?

Just keeping busy for the sake of busyness will eventually lead to redundancies, expensive products, long lead times and poor customer satisfaction. It can also lead to personal burnout. And all of these, sooner or later will have an impact on everybody.

It is not the busyness but rather the value we produce, the process efficiency and the ideas we generate that will position us as a trustworthy partner for our customers and employers. And as a result, you’ll see the value in yourself.

© Rolf Consulting