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How are you this 4th of July week? Busy, right? Forget relaxing by the pool, slurping frozen concoctions, waiting for the hot dogs to be cooked – you are catching up on some paperwork, aren’t you? Checking the comments on your latest blog post (ahem). Facebooking, of course. And wait, the kids have a swim meet at the club tonight – gotta run! Yep, me too.
Have you noticed, as did Tim Krieder in a popular article in the New York Times last weekend, that the default response when you ask anyone “how are you doing” is: “Busy. So Busy. Crazy Busy.” But when you follow up, to find out exactly why they are so busy, the answer gets a little fuzzy. Rarely does it involve a precisely defined task, to be completed within a specific period of time, measured by commonly accepted goals, and of any significance whatsoever beyond a small group of people. In other words, most busyness is a trap, imposed almost entirely by oneself or one’s immediate colleagues, and usually of no lasting importance. “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” is how Shakespeare put it centuries ago.
Krieder makes an excellent point distinguishing between us - with our quotidian middle-class, white collar existence – and people who are actually busy. People who are working two shifts in an hourly job to make the rent, for example. When you ask them how they are doing, they don’t say “busy.” They say “exhausted.” Those of who play the busy card are “almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they have taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve encouraged their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence,” Krieder writes.
The larger issue Krieder alludes to is one of the causes of our chronic busyness, I believe. If you scratch very hard on the surface of workplace busyness you can find a lot of people desperately trying to prove their worth, not only to their bosses but to themselves: “of course my job (life) is important, my calendar is full, I am completely booked, all the time, every day. See?” In other words, constant motion and activity is a bulwark against not just job elimination but existential dread.
Mind you, there is some good to be had in constant activity. Movement toward a future goal is a bedrock principal of cognitive behavioral therapy. When bogged down, set a specific goal, any goal, and work hard to achieve it. It is the activity itself and the self-efficacy it brings that improves mood and cognition, and wards off depression. And existential dread is something worthy of avoidance, as far as I am concerned. There is a reason it is called “dread.”
But this is not a column about existentialism or cognitive behavioral therapy. I know you are too busy to wade that deeply today, because there is plenty of other Web content staring you in the face and I appreciate you sticking with me this far.
So let’s focus on another question. How much of our busyness at work is caused by non-essential things? For example, is that new succession planning process your boss pushed through – the one that you are driving yourself nuts trying to get the sales team to cooperate with – really necessary? And do you need to meet every day for a few hours with your HR department to complain about the sales team? Did you ever stop to think that maybe IT IS A WASTE OF EVERYBODY’S TIME? A distraction from other things at work, like . . . sales?
Maybe we should just chill out, and quit acting like modern-day versions of Willie Loman trying to prove that we exist (“Attention must be paid!”). Too often our efforts, no matter how benign, create stress and excess busyness for everyone in our orbit.
So this 4th of July week, as you plan the days and weeks ahead, ask yourself which of your activities are really necessary. More importantly, ask which might create more unnecessary busyness for those around you and distract from the core mission of the firm. Declare your independence from the busy trap. You’ll be happier, and so will those around you.
Now, gotta run. Need to post this and spend the day promoting it. You see, I am really busy.
Daniel S. Bowling III is an expert on the science of well-being and work and conducts empirical research on this topic through the University of Pennsylvania. Formerly, he was a partner in a major law firm and later, the global head of human resources at Coca-Cola Enterprises, where he directed all HR activities for more than 80,000 employees worldwide. He currently holds faculty positions at both Duke Law School and UPenn. He also leads a consulting firm, Positive Workplace Solutions, that works with some of the largest institutions in the country showing that well-being enhances not just life satisfaction but productivity and performance, and writes and speaks extensively on these topics. He can be reached at editor@TalentMGT.com.