Leadership and the Attraction of Busyness
This article was originally published in Leader to Leader.
In our culture today, busyness is often our default excuse. As leaders, this couldn’t be more true. Most of us would describe ourselves as busy, but what do we actually mean when we describe ourselves as such? Can you actually pinpoint all of the things that are filling your time, or are you just busy for busy sake? Perhaps the answer isn’t entirely clear, but it doesn’t make the problem any less real. There is a saying we reference often – ‘busyness kills the heart’ – and both scientifically and anecdotally, this can be true.
In this article, adapted from our new book Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way, we’ll dive deeper into the topic of busyness. Leaning on data collected from qualitative interviews with 350 executives (mainly CEOs and CHROs), and quantitative data from more than 5,000 companies in nearly 100 countries, we’ll explore how leaders can stem the urge to always be “busy” with simple tools and techniques.
Busyness Feels Productive
First, it is helpful to understand why being busy can feel good even when we know it has negative consequences for our leadership and our health. Very simply put, we choose to stay busy because it makes us feel productive.
Busyness is seductive because we confuse an active mind with a productive mind. When we have lots of ideas and thoughts pinging around our brain, we can be fooled by the illusion that we are keeping on top of things. Consider whether you can relate to the following question: “How can I keep my edge if my mind isn’t racing at 100 miles per hour with a million thoughts?”
But is it really true that having “a million thoughts” results in greater productivity? Consider the last time you had a really good idea. Was it when your mind was cluttered with lots of thoughts or when your mind was clear? More than likely, it was when you stopped thinking and created more space in your mind. This is why so many great ideas come to people while taking a shower, during a walk, or even while sleeping. But this is not our default mode of operating. Our brain has a natural tendency to ruminate. If there is something we are concerned about, our brain will replay the same thoughts over and over again, trying to help us come up with an answer or solution.
This is when our brain can play a cruel trick on us. It can create the illusion of a “busy” mind being productive because we convince ourselves that by replaying the tape over and over again, at some point the issue will be resolved. But in fact, our mind is just stuck in a hamster wheel, and we are wasting precious mental energy.
But because we are thinking about a problem we need to solve, we can be tricked into thinking a busy mind is good. As most of us are painfully aware, however, rumination just leads to more rumination. And rarely, if ever, does it lead to insight or letting go. Busyness kills our compassion by cluttering our mind and closing ourselves to the wisdom and insight that comes when we have more mental space.
Busyness Is Addictive
Being busy is physically addictive—and by addictive, we mean physically addictive, like a nicotine or alcohol addiction. It may sound overly dramatic, but it’s true. When we complete a task, even an insignificant task like sending an email, dopamine is released in the brain. Dopamine is a naturally produced and highly addictive hormone. When released in the brain, it provides a sense of enjoyment and gratification.
Because of this feeling, our brains are constantly looking for another dopamine hit—and quick, easy tasks like answering email, responding to a text, or updating our calendars can give us a “fix.” The problem is, dopamine does not distinguish between activity and productivity, between mere busyness and true efficiency. This makes us effective at doing a lot of things, but not necessarily at doing the important things.
In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Beware the Busy Manager,” researchers shared findings on leaders’ ability to prioritize tasks. Studying leaders in companies such as Sony, LG, and Lufthansa, the researchers concluded, “Very few managers use their time as effectively as they could. They think they’re attending to pressing matters, but they’re really just spinning their wheels.”
The consequence of this addiction is that we’re constantly chasing quick wins and easy fixes at the expense of long-term goals. When we do this, our ability to prioritize suffers, our willingness to do hard things deteriorates, and our overall performance diminishes. Remember, activity is not productivity. And the pleasure we get out of completing a task is just a temporary chemical reaction, much like a sugar high.
We Can Overcome Busyness
If we want to enable our innate compassion to come to the surface, we need to overcome busyness. We need to let go of the value we place on being busy and find ways to be more disciplined with our time. To do so, we need to recognize that busyness is a choice. Then we need to manage our time, make people a priority, and value busylessness. Let’s take a closer look at each of these strategies.
Busyness Is a Choice
Our minds enjoy being busy. Many cultures value busyness and see it as a badge of honor. But fundamentally, whether we want to be busy or not is a choice. If we have ten things that we absolutely must get done today and we only have time to get six of them done, we can choose whether to experience busyness. We can choose to be overwhelmed and feel under pressure. Or we can make a wise mental choice to prioritize the six we will do and stop thinking about the four that we just don’t have time to do today.
If we resist the urge to feel pressured by limited time, we can make more of the time we have by lifting our foot off the gas pedal and having a calm, clear mind to do what we can get done. If we can take a moment to pause, realistically appraise what we can get done, choose not to be busy, and therefore not be stressed, we can activate our parasympathetic nervous system. When we activate our parasympathetic nervous system, it is like stepping on our internal brake pedal. It enables our body to slow down, relax, rest, and feel at ease. From this state of mind, we can better tackle the things we need to do because we are calmer and have much greater clarity.
Manage Time and Priorities
We worked with a senior leader who was well liked by his colleagues and team. But he had a habit of being unrealistic about when he could get something done. He would often say, “I will get back to you tonight,”and every member of his team would know that was highly unlikely. He had the right intentions, and he was a smart guy. But good intentions and high IQ combined with lack of wisdom regarding time management equals poor outcomes.
Being able to realistically assess time and priorities is hard. It takes discipline, experience, and practice. Overcoming busyness by better managing time and priorities enables us to be a wiser and more compassionate leader. Too many of us have a lot to do and hope somehow, we can get it all done. But in the back of our minds, we know we can’t, and so the foot is still on the gas pedal, creating excessive stress. The only way to take the foot off that pedal is if we take time to ruthlessly assess our priorities and be disciplined in evaluating and managing our time.
Here are some tips to help you overcome busyness through better time management and the clarification of your priorities:
- Clear Mental Clutter: Take time to cultivate a sense of relaxation, release the pressure gauge, and create more clarity of mind. One of the best ways to do this is by practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness training is a simple and powerful tool to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. When we need to make difficult decisions, especially about competitive priorities, it is always best to do this with a calm, clear mind.
- Regularly Assess and Reassess: Take time quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily to review what needs to be done. Assess what is important versus what is urgent. Assess how much time tasks or activities will realistically take. Review how much time you have. Make tough decisions about what you can and cannot do, and then be diligent about planning your time.
- Manage Your Time: Block off time in your calendar to ensure you give yourself the time you need to get things done. Be ruthless. Include buffer time for tasks that take longer than expected. Block off time for breaks to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system. Block off time for unexpected issues, so that you have time for unplanned events and don’t get stressed. By being more disciplined with your time, you will find that you are able to get more of the right things done. When your mind is clear, you are more efficient than when your mind is cluttered. You area kinder, wiser leader. And you can be more creative about how to address issues and solve problems.
Put People First
The role of leading is to support and enable others to get things done. This should be where you spend most of your time. If you find that you are “too busy” to focus on supporting and developing others, you have a problem. Take a moment to reflect on your to-do list. How many items on it relate to you doing things versus you enabling others to do things? If there are too many things in the first category, there may be an opportunity to rethink your priorities and your role as a leader.
Here are some tips that can help ensure that you put people first:
- Prioritize People in Your Calendar: Take a moment to consider what percentage of time you think you should be devoting to supporting and developing others. Now look at your calendar for the next week. How many meetings are devoted to supporting and developing others? Are there opportunities for you to cancel things to give more time for people?
- Leverage Development Opportunities: Are there things you are doing that you could give to someone else as a development opportunity? And yes, this could mean that it might not be done as quickly or exactly as you would like, but if you take a longer-term view, challenge yourself to create more space for you and more opportunities for others.
- Create a To-Be List versus a To-Do List: Consider what kind of leader you want to be. This could include things like how you want to show up for others, or how you want to inspire them or make them feel supported. Sometimes we forget that we are human “beings” as opposed to human “doings.” To overcome busyness, it can be helpful to put the things we want “to be” as a leader at the center of our stage more often.
What if we placed more value on not being busy? What if we allowed ourselves to have more moments of non-doing and just being? Too many of us associate not doing anything with being unproductive or lazy. Since we are wired for activity, a natural discomfort often arises when we do nothing. Valuing busylessness is to invite and familiarize yourself with the experience of doing nothing. This experience is the mother of creativity and well-being.
Busylessness is productive inner silence. At first, it can feel of limited benefit. But after a while, we start to notice thoughts and emotions that we were not previously aware of. Valuing non action can also be applied to how we lead others. Sometimes as leaders, in our desire to be compassionate, we can be too quick to act. Sometimes, not acting can be the wisest and most compassionate thing we can do to create space for people to figure things out on their own.
Sandy Speicher, the CEO of the global design firm IDEO, spoke about the mental pressure of doing hard things, especially during uncertain times, as “feeling like compression in your mind. You are pushed to make fast decisions to alleviate the pressure.” And taking quick action and being decisive can ease the pressure—but that is not always the best path forward. The compression on the mind can easily lead to the opposite of compassion because, as Sandy puts it, “It feels like there is no time for care—you just want to act.” However, the ability to be in the situation, to endure the pressure, can lead to learning and insights that result in better decisions. For Sandy, this means “to design, not decide. To design is the ability to go on a journey to find the answers, rather than start with them.”
Clarity, People, and Presence
Too many of us waste mental time and energy ruminating about things we don’t have time to do. But the truth is, there’s never enough time in the day to get everything done and still have time for self-care or other life-nourishing activities. This is why it is so important to be clear about your most important priorities for the day. Once we’re able to establish clear priorities, we can stop cluttering our minds with less important tasks that we realistically don’t have time to achieve. When we allow our minds to be cluttered and busy, it is harder to see what is really most important in the moment. We’re blind to what happens right in front of us, because we’re too busy with everything that’s bouncing around in our minds. In this way, our intellect can become our worst enemy in seeing clearly and doing what needs to be done—leading with wisdom.
In contrast, the ability to “let go” of things we cannot do enables us to be more focused and less stressed, allowing us to more effectively engage in the things we are doing. If we focus on what we can and should do in this moment, we can focus on the task at hand or the person we are with. This means we can make people feel seen and heard and show them respect by being in the moment. And by being in the moment, we can meet people where they are and open our arms to their suffering with wise and compassionate presence.