Are You Taking Care of Busyness and Working Overtime?

busy work

“How are you doing? Keeping busy?”

“Oh, yeah! Busy, busy.”


How often have you been on both sides of that conversation? It’s become routine. Busyness is highly valued. It’s seen as a measure of our productivity — even our worth.

A Science article reports on an experiment by Timothy Wilson, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Participants were left alone in a lab room for 15 minutes with no devices, pens, or reading material. “…they could push a button and shock themselves if they wanted to. The results were startling: Even though all participants had previously stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity, 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict it on themselves rather than just sit there quietly and think…”

Gotta keep busy!

Busyness is Often Bad Business

Less effective people commonly confuse activity with accomplishment. They live by the famous motto of the French Calvary, “when in doubt, gallop!” They’re like a pilot announcing, “I have bad news and some good news. The bad news is we’re lost. The good news is we’re making good time”

A symptom of confused leaders “taking care of busyness” is often seen in the drive to get people back in the office rather than working from home. For some, it’s about teamwork and creative synergy in the workplace. But for other leaders, it’s about face time. They want to see people working — the longer and harder, the better. It’s often seen as a sign of commitment. These weak leaders manage by activity rather than by results.

“The Acceleration Trap” is a major problem I’ve cited often from a classic series of Harvard Business Review articles by Heike Bruch, professor of leadership at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, and Jochen Menges, lecturer in human resources and organizations at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. They documented huge differences in comparing 600 companies. Those accelerated companies were much less effective, and people much more stressed than the more strategic companies.

A similar study by The Economist Intelligence Unit of 343 business found “the firms that ‘slowed down to speed up’ improved their top and bottom lines, averaging 40% higher sales and 52% higher operating profits over a three-year period.”

Back in the days, BC (Before COVID), when we were holding public workshops, we had fun with a 90-second video clip of a leader multitasking  as he ran flat out on a treadmill. The “Flight of the Bumblebee” played in the background as I narrated at breakneck (nearly break voice) speed!

Beware a Culture of Busyness

That’s the title of the lead article in this month’s issue of Harvard Business Review. Author Adam Waytz is a psychologist and the Morris and Alice Kaplan Chair in Ethics and Decision Management at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. These key points stood out in his article:

  • Busyness is not a virtue, and organizations need to stop rewarding and promoting people for their “hard work.”
  • Research shows overloaded employees paid primarily on how long and hard they work reduces productivity and efficiency.
  • Busyness reduces engagement and increases absenteeism.
  • Reducing working hours can enhance productivity.
  • Busyness too often becomes the “fabric of the organization.”
  • Unclear organizational strategy and confusing priorities lead people to busy themselves doing what they think matters.
  • Reward output, not just activity.
  • Many organizations are full of shallow work that interferes with deep work.
  • Multitasking reduces productivity by up to 40%.
  • Leaders need to model the right behavior.

Time to Assess How Your Team Uses Time

We often work with leadership teams on their use of individual and collective time. I’ve written extensively on this vital topic. Here’s a recap of key points from research and that work:

  • Highly effective leaders treat time like money. A Bain & Company study of 17 corporations identified three big problems; “Companies are awash in e-communications,” “Meeting time has skyrocketed,” and “Dysfunctional meeting behavior is on the rise.”
  • Participants in a study on “making time for work that matters,” knowledge workers cut desk work by six hours per week and meeting time by two hours per week by identifying low-value tasks, deciding whether to drop, delegate, or redesign, off-loading tasks, allocating freed-up time, and committing to a development plan.
  • Emails pose threat to IQ” reports on classic studies by Glenn Wilson, a psychologist at London University’s King College, showed an average IQ loss of 10 points among 1,100 frequent electronic communicators who were flipping back and forth between tasks, conversations, and their electronic messages.
  • Harvard professor and strategy expert, Michael Porter, says, “the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.” Don’t load new projects and goals on top of existing workloads without rigorous “stop doing” pruning to make room for them.
  • A leadership team retreat can help your team advance. Take your team offsite at least once per year to reflect and refocus.
  • Balance working in the team with working on the team. Periodically discuss what your team should keep, stop, and start doing to increase your effectiveness.
  • Regularly review and adjust the purpose, process, participants, and effectiveness of all meetings.
  • Ensure your meetings have clear goals/outcomes for each agenda item, ground rules to minimize disruptions, document decisions, agreed action plans, and rigorous follow-through.
  • Develop e-mail ground rules within your organization to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of e-mail communication.
  • Define your desired culture, behaviors that help or hinder that culture, and implementation strategies to support everyone in living your core aspirations.
  • Develop your coaching skills and get regular feedback on the effectiveness of your coaching conversations.
  • Use a coaching framework to focus your team members on developing possible solutions and owning the issue.
  • Identify and focus on your top three or four “strategic imperatives” and put teams together to manage them.

Are you taking care of busyness and working overtime? Is it time you assess your strategic use of time? Do you need to slow down to go faster?

The post Are You Taking Care of Busyness and Working Overtime? appeared first on The Clemmer Group.

For over three decades, Jim Clemmer’s keynote presentations, workshops, management team retreats, seven bestselling books, articles, and blog have helped hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. The Clemmer Group is the Canadian strategic partner of Zenger Folkman, an award-winning firm best known for its unique evidence-driven, strengths-based system for developing extraordinary leaders and demonstrating the performance impact they have on organizations. Check out for upcoming webinars and workshops.


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