Saturday 3 December 2016

Busy or productive?

The busyness trap can block you from your real goals, writes Katie Byrne

Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30

Some suggest that busyness is a neurosis at best.
Some suggest that busyness is a neurosis at best.

Busy is no longer just a word we use to describe a hectic schedule. These days it's replete with connotations.

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Busy is a coat of armour and a badge of honour; a ready-made excuse and a modern-age status symbol. We use the word as validation, justification and extenuation. In fact, we use it so often that we have confused a temporary state of being with a permanent state of mind.

Working mother and Washington Post journalist Bridget Schulte explored the busyness epidemic in her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play.

She interviewed a number of time-management experts, including communications researcher Ann Burnett who noted that, "Busyness is now the social norm that people feel they must conform to, or risk being outcasts."

This isn't breaking news. Thanks to people like Arianna Huffington, we're all aware of the cult of busyness and more mindful of the work-life balance... even if we're not implementing it.

What is new is the idea that busyness can be counterproductive. Busy is hamster-wheel circular. Productivity is linear. A busy work day rotates around cc'd emails. A productive work day involves analysing and strategising.

Thomas Edison put it best.

"The object of all work is production or accomplishment and to either of these ends there must be forethought, system, planning, intelligence and honest purpose, as well as perspiration. Seeming to do is not doing."

Others suggest that busyness is a neurosis at best, an addiction at worst. Schulte also interviewed Professor Benjamin Hunnicutt, a professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa. He harked back to the Middle Ages, a time when "the sin of sloth had two forms".

"One was paralysis, the inability to do anything - what we would see as lazy," he explained.

"But the other side was something called acedia - running about frantically. The sense that, 'There's no real place I'm going, but by God, I'm making great time getting there'."

Information overload is especially acedia- inducing, according to time-management experts Franklin Covey. One of the rules in their book The 5 Choices, a Wall Street Journal bestseller, is 'Rule your technology, don't let it rule you'.

Busy people allow incoming emails to dictate the direction of their work day. Productive people, meanwhile, don't feel obliged to answer emails instantly. They check their inbox at designated times - maybe once in the morning and once at the end of the day.

Franklin Covey also suggests that all incoming emails are categorised into: Appointment, Task, Contact or Notes/Document. It makes it easier to negotiate the inundation.

This has echoes of Choice 1 in The 5 Choices: 'Act on the important; don't react to the urgent'. The researchers differentiate between the 'reactive brain' and the 'thinking brain' and explain how we can master discernment to overcome 'urgency addiction'. They go on to outline a time matrix between urgent/important. If something is urgent and important - like a last-minute deadline - it's a necessity. If something is urgent and not important - like a needless meeting - it's a distraction. Tasks that are not urgent and not important are defined as waste.

The final part of the quadrant is key: tasks that are not urgent yet important are what they term extraordinary productivity. High- impact goals, relationship building and creative thinking fall into this category and they will eventually become urgent if they are not acted upon immediately.

Remember that the tasks that we habitually avoid are very often the ones that will bring us closer to our long-term goals. Productivity maestro David Allen touched on this in Ready for Anything. "What we truly need to do is often what we most feel like avoiding," he writes.

Busyness enables this avoidance. The daily grind of the modern workplace encourages short-term fixing over long-term planning. However, we don't experience that satisfying sense of real productivity when we don't allow ourselves time to consider career progression or pursue our passions.

The next time you pen a to-do list, ask yourself if you've made space for idea generation and long-term planning. Likewise, have you made time to relax, refuel and take stock?

It's also worth reconsidering meetings for meeting's sake. Productive people tend to restrict themselves to one meeting a day. Alternatively, they organise their second meeting in the same location shortly afterwards.

They also differentiate between fruitless meetings and networking. As Keith Ferrazzi explains in Never Eat Alone: "I've come to believe that connecting is one of the most important business - and life - skill sets you'll ever learn. Why? Because, flat out, people do business with people they know and like. Careers - in every imaginable field - work the same".

Remember that longer working hours and bum-on-seat presenteeism don't always correlate with a larger labour output. The trick is finding a way to work smarter, rather than harder.

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