On Busyness

Painting: Sisyphus by Jeffrey Hummel

“It’s not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” (Henry David Thoreau)

Summary. 2021 went gangbusters for the professional services economy. Discussions of busyness were de rigueur on Zoom calls. Given that we’re so busy, it puts a greater responsibility on all of us to safeguard our most precious resource, time, in an era where opportunity costs seem to ever increase. This can be tricky because completing tasks (both important and otherwise) is seductive at a neurological level and so easily enabled by email. Remember, not all busyness is created equal, and we might benefit from developing individual ROI metrics for how we spend our time. Oh, and let’s stop talking about how busy we all are, it triggers our social comparison impulses.

Introduction

I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy. Let’s accept that as a premise before we go any further.

My goal is that by reading this blog, you will generate an ROI on the time expended to consume its 2,400 words (including footnotes). In fact, depending on where you are in your professional lifecycle, this blog may ultimately return months of working hours for activities that advance your earning potential or other commercial interests. Is that something you might be interested in? Then by all means read on.

By all accounts, 2021 was a banner year within the services sector (and many others). So standardized were the initial 45 seconds of essentially every Zoom call that casually dressed pull-string dolls could have managed the interactions in our place¹:

Person 1: “So, how you been? Busy?”

Person 2: “Oh man, crazy busy.”

Person 1: “Yeah, us too, it’s nuts.”

Person 2: “I’m turning down opportunities left and right — not enough people to process the work.”

Consider the absurdity of asking a working professional if they are busy. When someone poses the busyness question, only one of two scenarios occurs:

Scenario A: If the askee has, in fact, been busy, then the question amounts to time theft from a person who could be doing more productive things on a call than gabbing about how busy they have been.

Scenario B: If the askee has not been busy, then the question salts the awareness that they haven’t been as busy as they would have liked and, further, compels them to inflate the account of how busy they’ve been so as to not appear inept at their given profession.

In summary, asking people how busy they are results either in (a) wasted time or (b) exaggerations. There simply must be more effective topics for the early moments of business conversations to humanize the participants and/or endear them to one another.

I know, this is hard. Mindless conversations about busyness and weather are so woven into the fabric of conference calls that this will be a challenging habit to break absent a strong incentive. So, here’s a sensitivity table illustrating how many days you’ll get back based on (i) how many years you have left in your career, and (ii) how many minutes you spend per call discussing how busy you and the other party are²:

Sisyphus & the Nature of Work

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the deceitful King of Ephyra who angered the gods in his attempts to cheat death (on a couple of occasions). As punishment, Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to eternally roll an immense boulder up a hill that would then roll back down the hill every time he approached the top. The tale of Sisyphus has so influenced modern culture such that we now describe tasks associated with drudgery and/or futility as being Sisyphean.

If this sounds in any way familiar, consider that all of us become Sisyphus the moment we fire up our email platform of choice. Metaphorically speaking, our daily boulder-rolling exercise begins at the bottom of an electronic hill, of sorts, from which we embark upon an upward climb to the top of our inbox until the demands of food, family, fatigue or frustration dictate that we cease our efforts until the following day. And, without fail, our email-shaped boulders are there to greet us every morning when we awake. Death. Taxes. Email. The good news is that promotions seem to eventually result in diminished accountabilities to email responsiveness, etiquette and grammar³, so another compelling motivation for advancement is an awareness that the boulder (in some ways) gets lighter over time.

Separated by over 3,000 years, notice the commonality between the Greeks’ understanding of work and ours — the realization that it starts anew each day and goes on forever. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only constant in life is change.” I might add another constant to the list.

The Psychology of Busyness

Work doesn’t always feel like rolling a boulder uphill. In fact, completing tasks (large or small) often feels pretty good. This is probably best explained by something called the Zeigarnik Effect⁴, which suggests that the brain remembers the things we need to do better than the things we’ve done. This remembrance of more pressing tasks effectively creates a tension in our consciousness (referred to as the “inner nag”) that is alleviated by completing those tasks. And, upon completing a task, the brain offers a dopamine reward for doing so. So, responding to emails, for instance, offers the double-whammy of reducing anxiety and making us feel good, compelling us to continue doing it. One man’s unread email is another’s blissfully completed to-do list item, and so the cycle continues⁵.

There’s also the matter of putting busyness on display as a means of status signaling. After all, a willfully busy person is in demand, wanted, needed, valuable, often well-compensated, and happy to tell you about it. In 1954, psychologist Leon Festinger developed his Social Comparison Theory suggesting that people have an innate drive to evaluate their own abilities, often via comparison to other people. Case in point, consider your reaction to observing a similarly-aged peer’s promotion announcement on LinkedIn when the title exceeds your own. Initiating a conversation about busyness can be, essentially, a way for one person to probe on the other’s level of activity as a means of social comparison, whether they realize it or not.

Confusing Effort with Results

Busyness is not a strategy, nor is it a useful KPI. Assessing performance via busyness is like evaluating an investment based on the amount of capital invested without regard for the return. It’s only one part of the equation. Take two people — the first works 80 hours per week to generate 10 units of output. The second works 40 hours per week and, likewise, generates 10 units of output. The first person might feel some level of satisfaction about how busy they are (and telling others about it!), but the second generates the exact same output with 40 hours of additional time per week to allocate to other things. Who would you rather be, or hire for that matter?

This calls for the adoption of ratios that consider both output (numerator) AND input (denominator). If we’re meticulous about tracking our output-seeking activities in our respective CRMs, an examination of what the data are telling us may drive behavioral changes. See the following hypothetical example for how much more useful Chart #2 would be in determining how one might focus their efforts:

Instead of asking if someone has been busy, try the following questions as potential improvements — they might elevate your conversations by implicitly incorporating the notion of output:

“Any interesting goals for the year?”

“What is the most productive use of your time these days?”

“What was your proudest achievement of 2021?”

Addressing the B̶o̶u̶l̶d̶e̶r̶ Email Problem

There are two primary problems with email that contribute to its boulder-esque qualities:

  1. Emails are too cheap to send. What if all emails had some monetary cost? Would we all receive 50% fewer emails? 90% fewer? What if the recipient could somehow capture some of those economics? Now that would start to get interesting.
  2. “Your email is my command”. Emails create a digital record which means that allowing an email to go unanswered can enable someone to highlight the fact that you did not respond (the motives for this range from routine follow-ups to those with more Machiavellian intent). Therefore, emails have a compulsory power about them, and it can be hard to just let some of them go.

So, until someone builds a widely adopted email platform that introduces (i) a cost / payment mechanism, and/or (ii) mutually self-destructing emails⁶, our present relationship with electronic communication will continue. All is not lost, there are some things we can do about it:

No Response Necessary

If you don’t require a response from the receiving party, tell them so. This will save the other side time and make a deposit into your karmic bank account. Just imagine how many fewer emails you would have responded to today alone had email senders offered you this courtesy.

The Eisenhower Matrix (For Email)

The graphic above represents a method of time management espoused by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Tasks fall into one of four quadrants and are dealt with accordingly. In summary, tasks that are Urgent and Important are handled immediately and personally (1). Those that are Important and Less Urgent get an end date and are completed personally (2). Less Important yet Urgent tasks are delegated (3). Finally, Less Important and Less Urgent tasks are dropped (4). At a macro level, this can be applied to one’s holistic approach to time management — it can also be applied at a micro level to email.

The “Rule of 4”

Email is an effective form of communication until it isn’t. It starts to break down in complexity and/or when the subtleties of live delivery are critical. Try applying the “Rule of 4”⁷. The Rule of 4 suggests that if you anticipate a discrete email thread to necessitate more than four emails to drive to a resolution, then that is your cue to pick up the phone, hash out the details, and spare sender and recipient the associated keystrokes. Think of it like a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors — know the scenarios when Call beats Email.

Use Yes or No Questions

When seeking an opinion or approval on something, pose the final line of your email in the form of a question that can be simply answered with a “yes” or “no” response. By eliminating the pain of having to type up an elaborate response, your correspondence will be less of a burden on the recipient, you will likely increase the speed of response times and you may find solutions more quickly.

The Paradox of Unscheduled Calendar Time

In a world of shared calendars, large blocks of unscheduled time can be uncomfortable. People might talk. However, if unscheduled time allows the brain to productively solve problems, then those stretches may paradoxically result in better outcomes. Neuroscience has shown that idle brains are the most open to inspiration and creativity — one theory suggests that the boredom associated with idle time forces the brain to find interesting ways to alleviate it. The Dutch even have a verb, niksen, for the concept of purposefully doing nothing. Ever enjoyed the storied Napa Valley Cabernet called Far Niente? Any guesses as to the translation of the name? So, by doing nothing, you may well liberate your brain to later do something of vastly superior significance than immediately responding to the tyranny of the urgent.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s what some heavyweights of creative and intellectual output have to say on the topic:

“Originality thrives in seclusion free of outside influences beating upon us to cripple the creative mind.” (Nikola Tesla)

“When I am…completely myself, entirely alone…or during the night when I cannot sleep, it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.” (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart)

“Without great solitude no serious work is possible.” (Pablo Picasso)

“If my work isn’t going well, I lie down and gaze at the ceiling while I visualize what goes on in my imagination.” (Albert Einstein)

So, go on that walk, stare out the window, meditate, contemplate the feeling of grass on your un-socked feet — whatever it takes to pull yourself out of the distraction-prone stimulus / response loops of day-to-day busyness. And, figure out how to remove your team’s boulders to maximize their creative potential.

Conclusion

It’s like Thoreau said, “…The question is what we’re busy about.”

At the end of the day, the prize will most likely go to the person generating the highest ROI on their time, not the one expending the most hours. Let this stimulate a reflection on our relationships with time management, email, and the beautifully paradoxical behaviors that let us put down our boulders, so to speak, in pursuit of other paths to the top of the hill.

Footnotes

¹Consider the aggregate lost productivity in 2021 from people discussing how busy they were. By now, you’re probably amidst the wave of inquiries into how 2022 is starting off relative to 2021 which is just the latest incarnation of the standard busyness conversation.

²Assumes 50 working weeks per year, 4 active days per week for conference calls and 3 conference calls per day

³This is in no way a reference to anyone with whom I presently work

⁴Russian psychologist Dr. Bluma Zeigarnik stumbled upon this finding in the 1920’s after observing that upon returning to a restaurant where she had just finished lunch, her waiter did not remember her, where she was sitting or what she had ordered. She found this peculiar given that the waiter had previously taken everyone’s order accurately without writing anything down. Zeigarnik later conducted a series of experiments that reinforced the conclusion that the human brain remains more focused on unfinished tasks.

⁵Imagine the blissful ignorance of Ray Tomlinson, the person responsible for sending the first-ever email which set the Sisyphean wheels in motion sometime in late 1971

⁶Slack offers such a feature, though having never sent nor received a self-destructing message in a professional setting, I would conclude that I’m either now of an age where I start to reference “what the kids are doing” or the feature is not yet widely adopted

⁷If you haven’t heard of this, it’s because I just invented it. Any feedback?

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Private equity investor, writer, and student of the art & science of human connection

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Mark Gartner

Mark Gartner

Private equity investor, writer, and student of the art & science of human connection

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