Getting things done: avoid busyness

I’ve written before about how busyness is an enemy of simple living. Busyness is also a major stumbling block to getting things done.

I’m often dismayed when I ask someone how things are going with them, and then end up listening to a long and detailed account of how swamped they are at work, how frazzled they are trying to get the kids to this or that activity, how little time they have to do everyday chores. What dismays me is not the damage that busyness has done to their lives, but the fact that they wear such busyness as a badge of honor. Why is it that when someone is putting in more effort than ever and still falling farther and farther behind, he views the situation with pride rather than shame?

These days we tend to value zeal, which is easily summoned up and within anyone’s reach, over competence, which is hard won over many years of experience and effort. We’ve been trained to do so by industrial society, which has worked long and hard to eliminate the need for competent labor. The ideal job, from industry’s point of view, is the one where a a completely untrained worker can show up and exert himself for a set period of time; the system takes care of turning the worker’s bare effort into something creative and useful.

Corporate life is the worst for this, and high-tech corporations are the worst of the worst. Workers are lauded not for their reliability, common sense, or even productivity, but for their willingness to exert themselves to the point of sacrifice and beyond. The worker who throws himself completely into useless and even counterproductive efforts is the hero; the worker who points out uselessness and counterproductivity and refuses to go along with it is the goat.

The work ethic at Microsoft is a legendary example of this. Workers are expected to spend long hours at their jobs, whether or not the extra hours are actually productive. One software manager at the company, Steve Maguire, took some time to closely study the habits of his employees, and came to the conclusion that no matter how many hours they spent at the office, he got no more than forty hours of work a week from them. Why? Because as they worked beyond those limits, they became less efficient at getting work done. People who worked sixteen-hour days would spend eight of those hours doing things other than work—eating, schmoozing, surfing the internet, playing ping-pong, making personal telephone calls, running errands they didn’t have time to run outside of their long working hours. He insisted that his own team change their habits to spend a fully-engaged eight hours a day at work, using the rest of the day to live the rest of their life. His team was successful and healthy, but their example was never emulated because people were realistic—the corporate culture rewarded superhuman levels of effort, not effectiveness.

Regardless of what industry rewards and punishes, busyness is a clear indication that something is wrong. It may be that you have chosen a very inefficient or ineffective path to reach your goal. It may be that your goal is unrealistically ambitious, one that is beyond your reach, and that you are trying to make up the difference through sheer effort. It may be that you made the mistake of not making room on your very full plate for a new task. It may be that you need help to complete the task but won’t ask for it. It may be that cultivating an air of busyness makes you feel important. It may be that you are using busyness as an excuse for never bringing a task to completion and thereby risking that others might judge your work. The solution in every case is not to exert yourself even more, but to identify what is wrong and fix it.

You’ll have to decide for yourself whether it would be career suicide to forego busyness for effectiveness at work. But certainly within the sphere of family life you should be able to shift the atmosphere from rewarding effort expended to rewarding goals achieved—particularly if the overarching goal is a good life. Other families may think of you as lazy or undercommitted or detached or even neglectful, but they will tend to keep such views to themselves, being in general too busy to pay much mind to you, and the fruit you will bear in your own household will far outweigh any baseless condescension or disapproval they may find the time to inflict on you.


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