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I Am Busy. I Work Very Hard.

I Am Busy. I Work Very Hard.

When I ask someone how they are, more often than not they respond, “I am busy”. And it seems they feel good saying that. When asking further they usually make sure I know they “work very hard”.

Even this is not seen as something bad. To the contrary, it is mostly uttered with a sense of pride.

On the one hand, I see evidence that people might be required to do more due to workforce shortage, productivity requirements and many other factors.

I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

On the other hand, I cannot really remember a time when we were not busy. How often does it happen that someone says, “I am not busy”?

Beware The Culture of Busyness

The recent HBR article “Beware a culture of busyness” by Adam Waytz questions this fashion.

He explores the modern obsession with busyness and its detrimental effects on individuals and organisations.

Adam argues that a culture of constant busyness undermines productivity, creativity, and well-being.

The author points out that being busy is often seen as a status symbol, leading people to overcommit and undervalue rest and leisure.

I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

Busyness has become a status symbol. People consider those who exert high effort to be “morally admirable,” regardless of their output. Adam Waytz

Instead of glorifying busyness, we should prioritise meaningful work, focus on results rather than hours worked, and create environments that encourage balance and downtime.

By doing so, we can enhance overall performance and quality of life.

Here are two examples of busyness for the wrong reason.

Busy With Support Activities

Generally, we are busy with activities we deem important. The question is often not, whether these activities need to be done. The real question is, who is supposed to do those.

An analysis of the working pattern of a group of scientists in a lab revealed that they usually spend only 57% of their working hours on their core activities.

So, if they would not work overtime to catch up with their core work, this percentage would drastically decrease, and the already low customer satisfaction would get even worse.

What do they do the rest of the time?

I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

Data show that they spend 18% of their time on secondary activities. These are support activities that are certainly crucial to the core analysis. However, these activities do not require the qualification of a scientist.

The remaining 25% is spent on administrative activities that could be done by someone you can hire from the next bus stop.

By introducing a small, cost-effective administrative team and redesigning some roles, scientists were able to focus more on their core work. This resulted in increased productivity, higher customer satisfaction, and improved motivation.

Busy Pursuing The Wrong Targets

A team of salespeople covers multiple channels, allowing customers to place orders via the website, telephone, or email. The well-designed website ensures that customers input all necessary data, are clear about prices and promotions, and make payments on the spot.

Consequently, handling the website orders is quite painless, all other orders need to be converted by the salespeople from the unstructured email or chat on the phone to an order dataset in the system.

Checking such unstructured input is not automated and depends on the person processing the orders. In addition, this person needs to trigger invoicing as well resulting in delays jeopardising the cashflow substantially.

Therefore, it would be wise to convince and incentivise customers and corporate clients to use the website for future orders.

I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

However, the current commission structure for staff handling high-touch orders discourages them from promoting online orders. If they would persuade their customers to order online, they would lose their commission. So, why would they?

By changing the performance targets for these salespeople, they would be motivated to meet the right objectives, becoming more creative and efficient in achieving them.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

Being busy does not necessarily mean doing the right thing in a productive way (Building the muscles of your workforce).

It is everyone’s responsibility to step back and review our own activities from time to time to find opportunities for getting more productive, which translates into ‘less busy’.

Here are some questions you might want to start asking yourself:

  1. Of all the activities I am busy with, which ones do not add any value to the external customer? Why do I need to perform these?
  2. Which of the activities I am busy with are repetitive and show room for automation, for example, through RPA?
  3. Which activities are performed similarly by colleagues? Creating multiple similar reports every month is a common example.
I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

Busyness is the norm, but it shouldn’t be. Make it a habit to question what you do. It might have been the right thing to do years ago, but is it still?

Instead of being proud of being busy, we should take pride in eliminating unnecessary tasks. This is beneficial and should be rewarded.

Leaders can play a crucial role in fostering a culture of continuous improvement and innovation by asking their teams the following questions:

  1. Which aspects of your work could be approached differently for higher productivity?
  2. Have you made any recent changes to your work processes? If so, what were they?
  3. Are there any tasks or activities in your work that could be eliminated to enhance efficiency?
I am busy. Busyness is the norm.

Ultimately, our responsibility is not to stay as busy as possible. Our goal is to achieve the desired outcomes efficiently, freeing up time for recreation and family.

Be smart … and be lazy!

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Uwe H Kaufmann

Dr Uwe H Kaufmann is the founder of Centre for Organisational Effectiveness (COE Pte Ltd), a business advisory firm operating out of Singapore. As consultant and coach with many years of experience, his passion lies in supporting organisations to improve their effectiveness.
Uwe is a German national and Permanent Resident of Singapore. He has four children and nine grandchildren … and counting.

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