Whether your information of choice comes from the New York Times, NPR, Twitter, The Huffington Post or Facebook you likely read something in the last week about Tim Kreider’s essay “The Busy Trap”. Think of it as the much criticized overprogramming for children – except for adults. The Busy Trap prevents us from reaching our biggest goals, staying healthy, spending time with family and friends, and fully developing our Evolutionary potential in work and in life.
Kreider says that while we complain about not having enough free time, for most of us the problem of being too busy is our own fault. We are driven to believe that when it comes to work, education, activities and information if some is good, then more is better.
I am an avid fan of House Hunters International on HGTV. I know, I know – reports are that this reality show is in fact fake (shocker!) – but I just love the idea of tossing up my hands and getting out of this rat race to move to Nepal, buy a goat and make cheese. OK, maybe not that. For those of you who know me, it is much more likely that I will run to the Malaysian beachside and read lots of great (and bad) fiction. But, back to my point:
While Kreider speculates that this obsession with being busy is an attempt to combat a feeling of emptiness or lack of meaning in our lives, I think there is a lot more to why we are so easily lured into the Busy Trap.
WHY WE FALL INTO THE TRAP
In our work as business consultants we get to witness the inner workings of all sorts of American companies – technology, health care, financial services, travel & tourism – you get the idea. And, there is one thing that almost every employee we meet has in common – the intense need to look “busy”. It’s not as much about actually being busy than giving off the perception that you are “up to your ears in alligators and handling it like a pro.” We tell people how busy we are, we brag about how much we do in a day, how many fires we put out and how much email we get. We try to one-up our friends and partners – sharing the events of our day with a tone of exasperated martyrdom.
We do this because, let’s face it, being busy is a status symbol for the white collar working world. It’s a badge of honor and we are constantly comparing our level of busyness with our peers to see if we are in line. It’s the new rating system that is driving corporate culture across the country. And it’s literally killing us. As people pile on more and more stress, everything suffers – diet, exercise, family – and we all know how the story ends.
HOW THE BUSY TRAP IS HURTING AMERICAN BUSINESS
The impact on our health, family and friends is reason enough for individuals to resist the Busy Trap – but American business needs to take the Busy Trap just as seriously. When employees dedicate the vast majority of their brain power and creativity to the art and science of “looking busy” the organization loses. Looking busy usually requires typing frenetically on a keyboard or giving ourselves thumb cramps on one of today’s many devices of communication. Sure, we might be buying things on eBay (the most visited website at work) or playing Solitaire (another popular work pastime) – but you don’t know that. If all else fails, you can always check your 2000 daily emails, attend a bunch of meetings about other meetings, or create 70 PowerPoint slides for your next management report. As a last resort you could fill out your expense reports. While these activities will do wonders for making you seem busy, they do very little in helping individual workers or organizations reach their Evolutionary potential.
EVOLUTIONARIES AND THE BUSY TRAP
The Busy Trap works to halt Evolutionary development in its tracks. Task saturated with a million “to do” items to check off by quitting time, Evolutionaries are prevented from making real progress for transformational change. Without enough downtime in the day to think, brainstorm, create, plan, test and teambuild, Evolutionaries will never achieve the really great work they are capable of producing.
The problem is that the sort of time that generates the best ideas, team bonds, prototypes, and innovative outcomes doesn’t really look like work. Often it looks more like groups goofing off, having fun, playing around, or even just sitting quietly staring at a white board or contemplating a new study while sipping the latest local brew. It means taking vacations, spending time on reflection, and taking in experiences that push us beyond our normal day-to-day routines.
FIVE WAYS TO BEAT THE BUSY TRAP
- Schedule exercise, massages, yoga using your Outlook or smartphone calendar—right alongside your meetings and conference calls. This will elevate health to the same level of importance as your “worky-work.”
- Stop competing with others for who has the most stress; just stop having those conversations (it is really that simple)
- Encourage and learn from others who seem to have figured out the “work life balance” equation. Rather than feeling a sense of judgment or jealousy, ask them to be your mentor in learning to avoid the Busy Trap.
- Explore your artistic side. Any kind. Anywhere. This doesn’t have to be the next Picasso – in fact I find just helping my ten-year old daughter create a homemade card can be surprisingly fun and inspiring. Art helps everything. Go see it. Make it. Read it. Doesn’t matter. Feed that part of your soul regularly.
- Include all development work as an accomplishment in your professional growth 1:1 meetings. Don’t shy away from the fact that you are committing to be more balanced, healthy, and productive.
A MEANINGFUL LIFE… The Evolutionary Code
The cornerstone of the Evolutionary code is a commitment to a cause that is larger than the individual. The pursuit of personal excellence is always in some fashion at the service of that larger cause. This larger cause is rooted in making the world a better place – leaving a positive and healthy legacy for generations to come.
Unlike the individual that pursues excellence for the sake of excellence, Evolutionaries are committed to excellence as a form of SERVICE. Evolutionaries understand that the most important work of their lifetime will be realized in the context of fulfilled potential – their own and the potential of those that they teach, coach, and lead. Evolutionaries have no set level of expectations for what “success” is. Instead, by realized potential, we mean that Evolutionaries recognize that some people can give more than others, learn more than others, bear more weight than others, are simply capable of more than those around them. So they don’t have preconceived notions of what it means to be excellent – the point is that the more you are capable of, the more you should do. Evolutionaries know they are capable of a great deal. And so they hold themselves to a higher standard. In short, Evolutionaries live meaningful lives. They don’t know how to live any other way.
The Busy Trap is a serious threat to Evolutionaries trying to fulfill life’s potential. That’s why it’s time we all think seriously about Tim Kreider’s warning. We need to keep the conversation going, and we need leaders who are willing to take the first step in changing our Culture of Looking Busy. Our future depends on it!