Busy people are not successful people.
We mistake being busy with being productive. We get hit after hit of dopamine, the so-called “Happy Hormone” as we check off items on the to-do list, or smash out emails, all the while boasting on Twitter that we are “Just so busy”. It feels good, and it can become addictive.
Many companies reinforce our behavior by creating a heavy meeting culture or constantly hitting employees with short-term deadlines that they have to scramble to meet. Of course there are times in life when we really do need to be busy; the day before a deadline, or when we’re planning a big event we might need us to push our sleeves and get things done.
The problem comes when we get stuck in the “busy mode” either through our own choice or because of someone else’s. Over time we lose the ability to even see that we’re permanently reactive with little ability to control our own workload or direction. For many of us, going home tired at the end of the day makes us feel satisfied. We equate tiredness to productivity, and come to think that we should always feel this tired as proof that we’re doing our job.
But being busy is a choice.
When we spend all our time being reactive and busy we lose sight of the long term. Even with the best intentions, you won’t find time to be strategic if you’re always fighting against the tide of being busy. Not being strategic means we’re not planning our choices and miss the chance to prevent reactive situations from occurring.
Maybe as managers we’re too busy to see or deal with someone who’s unhappy in their role. When they quit we’re forced into a reactive situation. As an engineer we can get stuck shoring up a crumbling architecture, desperately fixing bugs to keep things working. But at the same time we’re missing the chance to stop and design a system that scales, or is secure, and maintainable. Anyone seeking a promotion needs to find time to stop, look around, and work out what the strategic work really looks like. Otherwise you’ll be stuck where you are, all the time wondering why your manager isn’t rewarding you for fixing 5 million bugs or running 200 meetings.
When we get stuck in the permanent busy mode we need to work twice as hard just to stay where we are. All the while we miss the opportunity to make the right choices to help ourselves or our teams move forwards.
Strategic thinking is the only way to progress.
To create time for strategic thinking we need to do less stuff; either we need to delegate things or we need to reject things.
An Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to separate tasks into the Important, and the Urgent. Anything urgent but not important can be delegated, anything not urgent and not important can be rejected.
Everything else is either done now or scheduled in. Make sure you include self-care in this group. Self-care is often de-prioritised by busy people but neglecting yourself severely hinders your ability to stay healthy and sharp.
The Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to see when too firmly stuck in Tactical or Strategic mode. If all your tasks sit in one part of the matrix then you can clearly see that you place too much emphasis on tasks of this type.
For anyone in a senior or leadership position having tasks in your Urgent, Not Important quadrant is a strong indicator that you’re not delegating enough. When you fail to delegate you fail to give other people opportunities. Correct this as soon as you can.
Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, and more importantly, what you’re not, you need to tell people. Make your priorities or calendar visible to the people around you and fiercely defend it so they know you’re serious. If they disagree with your priorities ask them to help you decide what gets de-prioritised to make space for their task. Be clear about the trade-offs.
If you have strategic work time scheduled in make sure you protect it at all costs. Lara Hogan has some brilliant advice on how to set up your calendar to be most effective for you. When you know the times of day that you’re most effective you can use them for the most important tasks. It seems obvious but many of us try to squeeze in important work when we have the time rather than carving out time for it. It should go without saying that important work is important. Give it the respect it deserves.
Finally, learn to say no. It doesn’t need to difficult, simply thank someone for thinking of you and politely decline. You can’t do everything and you won’t be able to meet everyone’s expectations but that’s ok. Take control of your life and spend your time in a way that gets you to your goals.