I’m too busy for my shirt, too busy for my work, too busy for …


There is a meme that circulates and thrives in a lot of organisations and which causes people to busy themselves to the point where they wear their busyness like a hairshirt and display it with pride – It  results in a social pecking-order in which busyness is the hierarchical determinant.

So what, you may wonder, is bad about being very busy?
Surely it means that the job is getting done, and that very busy people are productive and job-oriented?

Well no.

It more likely means that they aren’t taking time to reflect and to maintain the big-picture – and that spells the destruction of learning, of innovation, and of adaptability, and ultimately results in not just doing the work wrong, but even worse, doing the wrong work.

To learn, you have to not just do something repetitively, but actually reflect on what you have done, locate it in a context, and then build a mental map of where it fits into the big-picture and why.
Innovation and learning require time, and busyness puts a crimp in that.

Way back when I was a paid tinkerer maintaining big mainframe computers, my site manager (Erwin, are you still out there?) drummed into us that losing the “big picture” was certain death to solving a bug, and time and again each of us would learn this the hard way – following trace after trace, circuit after circuit, getting nowhere because we had lost the “big picture” and become too absorbed and busy to notice that we had left the terrain in which the fault could feasibly lie, and had ventured off the map entirely.

Chronic busyness precludes keeping a stable link to the big picture.

 A common theme in research into the psychology of problem-solving and of innovation is that the human brain needs time to reflect in order to solve complex problems and to innovate, so chronic busyness is detrimental to innovation and organisational learning.

However, perhaps the worst outcome of chronic busyness is that its sufferers tend to neglect their own self-improvement – or as Covey put it, to take time to “sharpen the saw”.
They ensure their own obsolescence by simply not investing the time and effort in developing their own transferrable skills and experiences – they lock themselves into a self-sealing mode of operation that is sure to ultimately degrade their abilities, performance, and their own employment security.

One way that people can break out of this mode is as a result of a catastrophic life-changing event such as being laid off.

A less traumatic way is through leadership – a leader that shows them the need to orchestrate slack-time in which to do some self-improvement or job-enrichment work, and gives them an example to copy.
Leadership provides a meme that says “it is ok to spend time on self-improvement”, and is a good antidote to the meme that says “just look how busy I am, I can’t even afford to think”

The question we must each ask ourselves is what sort of example we are setting in this regard, and to what degree we are showing leadership that encourages and allows others to improve themselves – indeed, are we providing ourselves with good leadership and setting ourselves a good example?

That’s my question, and I am sticking to it.


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