Are you busy being busy? 

Busy, reminders

Philippa Spratt examines the modern phenomenon of ‘busyness’ and offers practical strategies for transforming it into meaningful productivity 

These days most people seem, or like, to think they’re busy. You hear it all the time but what’s the net result of all this busyness? Being busy doesn’t necessarily equate to being productive or adding value. It’s fine to be busy but it’s outcomes that matter.  

Be clear about the tasks you are responsible for that will move the dial

As managers most of us aren’t being paid to be preoccupied with tasks that can be delegated to others or to keep things ticking over. If you’re running in and out of meetings, fighting with your inbox, and picking off the easier tasks on your to-do list then where are you adding value? Have you moved the dial or are you avoiding the difficult part of your job?  

Let’s look at a few of the reasons why you might not be paying attention to the things that will make a difference and what you can do to ensure you are busy being productive.  

Think about a piece of work you are avoiding. What goes through your mind? Maybe one of the following scenarios applies to you? 

Scenario 1: The task is too challenging 

You are not going to attempt this task as it’s too daunting, it’s not even on your to-do list. What’s the feeling that runs behind this thought? Maybe it’s fear of failure – even if you do your best, it could all go wrong and you’ll feel terrible. It could be that you feel a bit of a fraud, the person in your job (you!) should be able to accomplish this task but you are struggling.  

When you feel like this it can be helpful to think of a time when you successfully tackled a challenging task. Put yourself right back in that place and remember how you felt. Think about the strategies you used to overcome your negative thoughts and remind yourself how success felt.  

Another approach is to think about what resources you can draw on, for example an experienced colleague who can help. What resources are available to you?  

Scenario 2: I can’t start this task 

You know how to do this task, but you can’t seem to start it. What’s getting in your way or blocking you? Are you procrastinating or feeling unmotivated? Maybe you lack a bit of confidence. If it’s a confidence thing, you are not alone; we all lack confidence at times. Can you figure out why you might be feeling like that? Maybe it’s negative chatter getting into your head or bad experiences from the past intruding into the present. For example: “This didn’t work out last time so it won’t work this time.”  

If you start to feel stressed, it is helpful to self-regulate your emotions so you can think more clearly. Notice and slow down your breathing, relax your body or move – for example, get up and make yourself a hot drink. When you’re feeling more in control, taking a small step in the right direction can help change the way you think and make it easier to take the next step. If there isn’t an obvious place to start, do something connected to the task so you feel a sense of achievement and more in control.   

Scenario 3: I should never have agreed to do this task 

It can be tricky to say no in certain situations. It’s not always easy to think on your feet and assess the implications of taking on another task. People can find it difficult to say no when they fear upsetting someone or appearing unhelpful. It can also be difficult if you’ve just been promoted and are still finding your feet. You’re the one who walks out of the room with the monkey on their shoulder. 

One way to address a tendency to say yes when you really should be saying no is to experiment. Try saying no to a smaller task with a lower risk of any fallout. Notice how you feel. Is the sky falling in? If you can’t say no, give yourself some wriggle room. For example, say: “That looks interesting, I’ll just check out what I need and get back to you.” Hold off committing until you know what’s involved – you’ve then got some data to back up your response. 

Next steps 

It’s easy to have parallel to-do lists – the list of things you intend to tackle and the list of things you end up doing when you start work and stuff comes in from all directions. Be clear about the tasks you are responsible for that will move the dial.  

If you are avoiding these tasks, take time to reflect and be aware of your feelings. Work out what is blocking you or getting in your way so you can do something about it.  

The above are a few examples of strategies that have worked for our clients, what strategies might work for you? 

Philippa Spratt is Co-founder of Traction Coaching 

Philippa Spratt

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