“Busy is being in one place doing one thing with the nagging sense that you ought to be somewhere else doing something different

Jane Porter (FastCompany)

Busy has become a term worn like a badge of honour, especially in the workplace. Being ‘busy’ has somehow become synonymous with being productive, accomplished, successful. But here’s the thing… motion does not always equal progress. 

Simply moving doesn’t mean you’re going in the right direction. The shortest path between two points is a straight line – so if we’re constantly distracted, flitting between tasks, and being preoccupied with seeming to be occupied, that line tends to deviate.

Many of us have become so committed to multi-tasking, being productive and getting stuff done, that we’ve lost the ability to focus wholly on one task at a time; to do whole and complete work; to, and US Army General Creighton Abrams put it, “eat the elephant one leg at a time”.

And aside from making us feel anxious and overworked and under-rested, being constantly busy is bad for our health and our businesses.

Why? Being busy means…

…you’re not in the present

A recent Microsoft study indicated that people these days have only an eight-second attention span. This has been attributed (blamed) on everything from evolution to the proliferation of open-plan offices and the now ubiquitous nature of smartphones. Regardless of why it’s the case, what this lack of attention capacity means is that unless you’re absolutely focussed in the present – in ‘flow’ as some refer to it – it’s very hard to avoid distractions. The constant buzzing of notifications, colleagues sharing cat memes, personal matters encroaching on your professional life. 

Some businesses are combating this with an approach called “deep working”, defined by Cal Newport as, “The ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” It’s about focussing wholeheartedly on a single task and avoiding the desire to appear busy for the sake of it.

…you miss opportunities

When we get wrapped up in the busyness of life, it’s easy to forgo the opportunity to try new things; learn new skills or take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. If you’re so busy being busy, it’s easy to turn down that invite to a networking lunch, after-work drinks, or even personal opportunities like weekends away or dinner with friends. As Richard Branson says:

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.”

…you avoid problems and prioritise poorly

Want to distract yourself from bigger problems or more pressing priorities? Get busy. A priority is something we should do, as opposed to something we feel the need or compulsion to do. When we get caught up in the busyness trap, it seems like everything needs to be done. Now! Yesterday! Learning to identify what really matters is a skill. And learning to identify the ‘one thing’ – that when achieved will make all the other things easier – will make life less busy and more focussed. And that ‘one thing’ is not always a physical task; it may be dealing with feelings about a recent disappointment or difficult experience. Whatever it is, being busy will not solve the problem, it’ll simply ensure it sticks around a little longer.

…you neglect the things and people you love

If you’re so caught up in running around, there’s little time left to do the things you enjoy or the things you need to keep you firing on all cylinders. Things like eating properly, getting enough exercise, spending time with your loved ones, petting your dog or cat. If you’re always at the office until 9pm; always rushing to collect the kids from school and get them to soccer training; always feeling like you need to be in two places at once, it leaves very little time for self-care, rest and reflection. It’s easy to get caught up in the “glamour” of being busy and neglect the things that are truly important. Life is there to be lived and enjoyed – sure, we all have to work, but finding a little time for yourself each day will make those hours on the clock a whole lot more enjoyable. And productive.

…you have no time to think, rest or recover

Time for reflection and consideration is key in the workplace. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that people do their best work when they also have the opportunity to wind-down, relax and recharge. Most people need space from the day-to-day grind in order to do their best work – especially those in strategic roles that require reflection, deep thought and future thinking. 

The proliferation of flexible work conditions has been one measure implemented by many workplaces to help employees manage the so-called work/life ‘balance’. But being able to turn up a little later, leave a little earlier, or work from home once in a while does not necessarily offer the space needed by people to recharge and rejuvenate in order to keep performing at their best.

BRG CEO David Anderson urged his team before Christmas to take time over the break to do things they find joy in, connect with those they love, and recharge, in order to return to work refreshed and ready to go in 2020. The analogy he used was this:

“For every 20 seconds an elite athlete performs at their peak, they rest for two minutes. This allows them to recover sufficiently before pushing themselves to the maximum again.”

This approach not only builds resilience, or the ‘bounce-back’ muscle, it also ensures the athlete gives themself time to recuperate before pushing their body to maximum effort again. And while we’re not necessarily likening actual jockeys to ‘desk jockeys’, the principle is sound. No one can perform at their peak for a prolonged period without burning out – even a computer needs the odd reboot.

…And ultimately, you forget what drives you

It’s easy to forget your passion and purpose when you become distracted by the everyday. Humans need purpose. It drives us when the path ahead is unknown. If you have a clear “why”, it’s easier to push through the inevitable obstacles, setbacks and disappointments. But being constantly busy can see you become detached from the purpose that drives you forward. Having a long list of tasks to get through isn’t a bad thing, but if you’re busy without a purpose you’ll soon find yourself feeling detached, dissatisfied and drained.

So why not commit to being a little less busy and little more focused on one task at a time? You might be surprised at the difference it makes to your overall productivity, health and happiness.