Busyness is Bad for Business

Busy people are seen as more important. This is a big problem.

The results of a study about the relationship between being seen as busy and being perceived as important will soon be published in a paper. In the meantime, this articlesums up some of the key ideas about why people stopped boasting about having leisure on their hands and started instead making sure everyone is aware just how busy they are.

“In a series of experiments,” Sarah Kessler wrote for Quartz, “researchers tested whether signaling ‘busyness’ changes people’s social status.”

The study’s authors, Silvia Bellezza, Neeru Paharia, and Anat Keinan, outlined their findings in an article for the Harvard Business Review. They offer an idea about why the association between busyness and status might be:

What has changed so dramatically in one century? The researchers think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.

Busyness is Bad for Business

After working with big companies for many years, my view is that busyness is a coping mechanism at a time when people aren’t really sure what’s expected of them as their organizations undergo massive transformations.

When you’re busy constantly, you’re obviously working, and if you’re working, your value can’t be questioned, even if the work you’re doing isn’t inherently valuable.

It is amazing how easy it is to employ busyness to seem vital, and how rarely this is questioned. But add up all the lost productivity, and companies have a hugely expensive problem on their hands. Science House spent the last year designing a solution specifically for this problem.

Meetings: A Great Way to Show Your Busyness

We noticed that our clients across industries had a big problem with meetings, largely because of busyness. I’m planning to write much more about this soon. Meetings are a great way to show how busy you are. People go to meetings they don’t need to attend for various reasons, but often just to signal status. If you weren’t important, you wouldn’t have been invited to the meeting. You’re important, so your absence will be felt, even if you don’t have much to add.

The way meetings are run demonstrates, unequivocally, how fractured the work day has become, and how bad that is for companies. Many of the most difficult tasks require lengthy periods of focus. It is safer, in a sense, to be busy and therefore valuable, than to take the risk of focusing and not being able to deliver. This coping mechanism of busyness might feel good in the short term, but like any bad habit, the long term sustainability nags at people in their most vulnerable moments. Days, weeks and months slip away and the long-term thinking and action required to transform a company or complete a huge project are neglected in favor of a short term busyness fix.

I just want to be crystal clear about one point. People do get legitimately busy. We all have a lot of work to do. Busyness, however, is not the same thing.

We often hear people say that they have to do the “real work” at night or on weekends because they are in too many meetings. While it might seem appealing for companies to get the extra hours out of people, it isn’t a good idea to have people doing the “real work” when they are tired, not thinking clearly or ignoring their other responsibilities to fulfill it. Engineers, who need focused blocks of time for their work, all too often get interrupted. Senior executives, responsible for the most elusive yet critical output, strategy, spend so much time in meetings that their heads are swimming by the end of the day. When you don’t have time to think straight, it becomes extremely difficult to maintain clarity when constructing critical long term visions backed up by action. In other words, imagine how a senior executive would be perceived if she admitted that she wasn’t coming to your meeting because she needed time to think. The reality is, thinking is a big part of her job.

Time to think! Must be nice. The rest of us are so busy, busy, busy…

And all these meetings could, in theory, be perfectly fine, if the objectives were clear, necessary and achievable. Instead what we notice, again and again, is a veering between subjects and modes, a failure to define the purpose and to follow up with clear action, to keep things on track, to navigate with emotional maturity, and to imagine how things might be different with clarity. In one recent survey, 85% of managers reported that their organizations are bad at problem diagnosis. Correctly diagnosing problems requires focus.

So we invented a framework, Model Meetings (TM), to tackle these problems. We started with the premise that focus is worth fighting for, and that if individuals could feel better about work while improving the company’s bottom line, then employees wouldn’t resent the new skills and companies would be much happier knowing that they took steps to mitigate some of the estimated $37 billion a year lost to this problem.

You’ll be hearing more about it from me in the near future. In the meantime I’m happy to discuss ways you can start to fix this problem within your own company immediately.

Rita King
About the author: 

Based in New York, Rita King is Director and Executive Vice President at Science House, a strategic consultancy that specializes in aligning business goals with collaborative strategies. She is also a futurist at the Science and Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences, and also served as futurist at NASA Langley’s think tank, the National Institute for Aerospace, focusing on the future of work and education. Her features have appeared in/on The New York Times, Psychology Today, Al Jazeera, TIME, CNN, Fox News, NPR and the BBC.  Follow her on Twitter.