Is ‘busy’ the new ‘lazy’?

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We’re all so busy; what we’re doing is very important too.

Strange then that ours is neither a culture of elite productivity nor meaningfulness.

That’s because most of the busyness is a hoax.

But we’ve built an altar to it. Those who lift the lid can pay a high price for seeing things as they are. In some workplaces it’s unadvisable.

You at least, must name it for what it is.

Often being busy is little more than a distraction.

Being busy forgives just about anything.

I am so busy I –

  • Forgot your birthday.
  • Was late for lunch.
  • Snapped when I got home at 8pm (I’m just so stressed).

Here are the proper names for those events -

  • Thoughtless.
  • Selfish.
  • Rude.

But we don’t use them.

The cult of busyness comes complete with its own language – this language is a trap.

We don’t say “I forgot your birthday that was thoughtless” but rather “forgetting your birthday reflects how committed I am.” (But not to the birthday girl or boy.)

We wrap it up in other words – “it’s business, it was unavoidable, my boss demanded, I had to, I am doing this for us,  I did it for you.”  Anything but what it is really is.

There is of course, “legitimate busy”.

Sorting the kids, shopping, cooking, working, work events, juggling chores, caring for others – yes – we are legitimately busy and exhausted. And some people work disproportionately just to survive, just to pay the bills – they are genuinely busy.

We should not confuse it with the kind of busy that is about moving the air around.

We should not confuse it with –

  • A failure to delegate that reinforces our sense of importance.
  • An inability to prioritize that signals a lack of skill.
  • The constant need for distraction that points to lack of purpose.
  • An inability to care for yourself that means you suck others dry.
  • A desire to avoid necessary but mundane chores in life for more glamourous ones.

I used to work with a very senior man who started at 7am and left at 8pm. He read the paper then  did the gossip rounds until midday; he often caused chaos, which he subsequently had to spend time fixing. He prided himself on being a bomb-thrower; those who did not see through this mask mistook his temper for courage. He accepted every work invitation that crossed his desk, irrespective of its importance to him or the organization. This was bad enough. What was worse is that he sent those who could not put in same hours a message that they were not as committed as him. He took work seriously (so he said).

The reality? He was unhappily married with no interests outside of work. He used other people’s energy to fill  him up.

In another language he may have been called a time-waster, a taker, a user. Unfortunately the culture of busyness legitimates this kind of behaviour and labels it something else – busy.

We all know at least one person like this. We must see through them. We must not allow them to drain us. Sometimes we can be this person in which case, we must reign ourselves in.

The reality is that the cult of busyness is not going to disappear anytime soon. Constant and meaningless activity is entrenched and enshrined in personal life and the workplace as good. We used to measure inputs, not outputs. We still do.

Let’s look at what’s really going on.

We accept ridiculous, unarticulated messages about being busy – we say if you’re busy you’re –

  • Important.
  • Committed.
  • Worthy.
  • Serious.

It may not be true but it makes us feel good.

If you’re sitting at your desk thinking about a forward strategy – you’re not seen to be “doing anything”. You can be sure someone is going to pull up a chair or fill that gap with a meeting or by coming over to chat – “you can’t be busy enough.” If you take a day to read and reflect you’re “lazy”, you probably do everyone else the favour and label it before they do “I’ve had a lazy day”.

White space, downtime, retreat is seen as creative luxury. Nice if you can get it. It’s often the first practice to go in down times but also gets excessive attention when it’s in place. Think Google’s 20%.

This is completely out of kilter with how the brain works.

We need time to read widely and from different sources, to reflect on information. Synthesize different ideas. Make something of what we know. Create stuff. Do good.

It’s also completely out of kilter with the skills we need to cope with a fast-changing, ambiguous, technologically driven, innovation-differentiated world.

  • Busy is lazy when it takes so much time that you do not actively seek out new information and new inputs, in particular if they’re challenging.
  • Busy is lazy if it means your decision-making remains driven by what you’ve done for the past twenty years.
  • Busy is lazy when it stops you forming new habits.
  • Busy is lazy when it takes time away from difficult thinking and problem-solving in lieu of meaningless distractions.
  • Busy is lazy when it’s the legitimate excuse you use to avoid anything less comfortable than being constantly busy itself.

Some of the “busiest” people I’ve met are the least productive.

You at least, must see through this ruse.

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