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Blog

...as featured in Harvard Business Review.

Is Busyness Bad for Business?

Susan David

Michael is busy. For weeks he’s been rising early and getting home late. As division head, he’s used to the budget season bringing strain. But this year he’s been running the numbers — doing his “real work” — largely outside normal hours. His days are filled with meetings, often without clear objectives, and the invitations just keep coming in. To make matters worse, he’s been asked to complete seemingly redundant paperwork and grapple with ever-changing spreadsheet columns. The constant activity is taking its toll.

Many of us can relate to Michael. The New York Times recently featuredan essay in which writer Tim Kreider critiqued today’s “crazy busy” lifestyle as unnecessary and destructive — a smokescreen designed to hide the fact that “most of what we do doesn’t matter.” The piece received hundreds of comments and was in the “most viewed” list for quite some time. He clearly hit a nerve.

But what should organizations — people like Michael and those who manage him — read into that conversation? Is busyness bad for business?

The answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no”. While Kreider argues that we need bout of idleness to get inspired and work more effectively, there is evidence that workers benefit from busyness. Take one experimentconducted in 2010 by professor Christopher Hsee at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Hsee’s team found that people who kept themselves occupied rather than waiting idly after a test felt happier. Interestingly, participants in the study were not likely to busy themselves unless they could justify the activity; they weren’t interested in what Hsee and his colleagues call “futile busyness”. But the results showed that even futile busyness is better than idleness.

In my organization’s own recent research with a global firm, we discovered that a common characteristic among the company’s great leaders was their recognition of the importance of busyness. They knew idle employees would suffer, and so pushed to instead create a stimulating work environment. For example, one leader responded to a downturn in work by encouraging team members to look for novel projects that interested them and might generate opportunities. Not only did this keep the group engaged, but some of the projects also eventually bore fruit. This wasn’t futile busyness, of course. “Creative busyness” might be more appropriate.

Indeed, busyness seems to be most productive when the tasks we busy ourselves with are also meaningful. In a 2008 MIT study, researchers investigated meaning by asking participants to build Lego models. Finished models were either kept, or they were disassembled in front of the participant and handed back for rebuilding. (This was called the “Sisyphus condition”, after the mythical figure condemned to repeatedly push a boulder up a mountain only to watch it roll back down again). Even though the two conditions involved exactly the same type of work, participants in the “meaningful” condition were willing to produce more models (and built them more efficiently, for a lower median wage) than those who mimicked Sisyphus. Surely Michael, who attends one meeting only to have another scheduled, and completes one spreadsheet only to be presented with new figures, is starting to feel like he’s pushing that boulder.

Perhaps we are not so much caught in a “busy trap”, as a “meaning trap”. A meaningful life involves pursuing what we truly value, a sense of contribution in our work, as well as time outside of work to relax, enjoy hobbies, and spend time with loved ones. It’s perhaps no surprise that the great leaders in our study were also expert at modeling work-life integration; they valued not only busyness but also meaning. How did their emphasis on both impact the bottom line? Positively. Their teams were more engaged, their revenues were higher and their turnover was lower than other groups’.

If you are responsible for keeping others “busy”, consider the following:

  1. People have a fundamental need to feel competent. It’s your job to give them stimulating, meaningful work.
  2. Rather than waiting out a lull, encourage employees to be creative and proactive.
  3. Give them the time they need to complete key assignments. Don’t let meetings or inefficient work practices hijack their workdays.
  4. Help employees stay connected to the meaning in the work they do. Tie tasks to how they benefit the person, the team, the client, the organization.
  5. Consider what makes life, and not just work, meaningful. Make sure your team members have time for it.