The Most Overworked Word in Today’s Business World

5 minute read

During the past year, I’ve noticed that when I meet with a client and ask how they’re doing, the vast majority of the time their response is busy, really busy, very busy, got a lot going on, or something of the sort. Their accompanying tone often suggests to me that they perceive their level of activity is more than they want it to be, and that functioning at the level they are functioning should be the exception rather than the rule. It’s almost as though people have come to think that being “busy” is some sort of badge of courage in the business world.

The ubiquitous “busyness in business” leads me to several thoughts. First, our language creates our reality. How we use words sets the tone of and creates reality for us; it colors how we see the world and our lives. I AM are the most powerful words in the English language. What impact do they have on us when BUSY is what we choose to follow them with? The word “busy” has come to inherently connote an issue, problem, or undesirable state.

A friend recently shared on Facebook this very relevant thought on busyness from philosopher Eric Hoffer: “The feeling of being hurried is not usually the result of living a full life and having no time. It is on the contrary born of a vague fear that we are wasting our life. When we do not do the one thing we ought to do, we have no time for anything else.”

Secondly, there is something inappropriate about being extremely busy. No matter where they work, it seems like everyone is being asked to do more than they should be. It makes me wonder, did they expect something different than this in exchange for their paycheck? If we are to be happy and productive in life, there are some things that must be fair and just—or else corrected to be—including our competency and compensation levels, work/life balance, and health. We are the only ones responsible for bringing those things into balance for ourselves.

Now, I’m not saying that people should be seeking a level of responsibility or activity that causes “hair on fire” status every day, as one of our clients was described by their subordinate. It’s completely appropriate to meet with the boss to go over workload and invite the boss to challenge our priorities triaging to make sure we’re all on the same page—particularly if one is asked to take on even more when already in a state of overwhelm.

As a tool to use in these kinds of meetings with the boss, I often recommend to my clients a prioritization model that uses the categories of must do, should do, and nice to do to triage what’s on their plate. And a good rule of thumb is, no matter what, always save 10% of your time for the “nice to do” category, so you’ll have flexibility to meet demands when your workload peaks.

Another helpful strategy is to do what psychologist Rick Hanson wrote about in a recent newsletter: “empty the cup.” That is to say, clear some obligations and activities out of your broader schedule so there is more time and space simply left open. It’s essential to have a little down time to think creatively, and to do things that are unrelated to our normal work. This allows the two halves of the brain to communicate, leading to innovation. That doesn’t happen when we have more to do than we can accomplish, as scientific studies have repeatedly shown that the brain is not good at innovating when it is maxed out.

I should also point out that I’m not echoing the oft-prescribed antidote of taking a vacation, or even admonishing everyone to be sure to use the vacation time allotted to them—because you’re already doing these things, right? (Right?) Rather, I’m suggesting you should deliberately build time into your regular schedule to innovate.

One of my first corporate bosses, Leon, was the most action-oriented professional I’ve ever known. Yet it was not uncommon to find him sitting at his desk at 7 or 7:30 in the morning, deep in thought.

“Good morning, what’s going on?” I’d pop my head in and ask as I passed on the way to my office.

“Just brainstorming,” Leon would reply. He understood the value of time and space to think.

My subsequent boss, Joe, when a problem presented late in the day would say, “Let’s sleep on it and see what we think tomorrow, instead of forcing an answer today.”

Effective leaders understand and appreciate the value of not being continuously busy. So while most folks are creating December posts about how to conquer next year, I want to encourage you to take a step back and ask, “How can I build in some breathing room?”

For This Week, try one of these busy-busting exercises:

  • Challenge the use of the word “busy.” Reframe your reality by resisting the default answer of “busy” when someone asks how things are going. Consider if that is really the most thoughtful word to describe where you are and how you want to see yourself.
  • Proactively manage your time by emptying the cup. Let go of tasks that subordinates can take care of, cancel obligations that are not fulfilling uses of your time, and learn to use “no” and “not now, maybe later” as  complete sentences.