We live in the age of busyness. We have never been busier nor so desperate to stay busy and to communicate our busyness.

There are multiple ways to stay busy. The availability and increasingly low cost of mobile technology brings huge benefits. We have access to our work and social network at our fingertips in almost any location. We have instant access to vast amounts of information. We can maintain relationships that would have floundered had they been dependent on land lines and letter writing.

But be under no allusion. It comes at price.

Like sharks who must keep swimming lest they drown we are all adapting to being permanently busy. The cost of being busy can be measured in 2 ways. Firstly, there is the cost to organisations. Costs can be direct as a result of people being busy rather than productive, more of which later. The costs can also be indirect such as increased workplace absence from burnt out employees and decreased retention rates. As we learn more about fatigue and the impact on cognitive function, it could be errors made by frazzled staff or executives making important choices whilst working upwards of 60 hours in a week.

The second but not lesser cost is the human cost. The stress of never feeling finished, frenzied races to deadlines, missed opportunities with friends and family, health issues, exhaustion, increased errors, less creative thinking, the list goes on. We can no longer pretend not to realise the impact of too much stress in the workplace.

Maybe it will become an offence to be a ‘knowing permitter’ of too much stress at work if we really want to protect employees from harm. I have certainly been a ‘knowing permitter’ and a willing participant in the stress building game of being busy.

I’m not sure when I became aware that when people asked me how I was my answer had moved from ‘great’ to ‘busy’. Delivered with the same sense of happiness and achievement.

I’m task focused and productive. The type of person who adds already completed tasks to a list just to cross them off and enjoy the measurement of unplanned tasks that day. I like to be busy. Busy = great in my book.

Does busy = productive though and does it matter? Like all good answers it depends. A never-ending cycle of too busy is stressful enough. Disconnect it from productivity and you have a ticking time bomb.

Many busy people are productive. They are busy getting things done. The bustle around them is part of their persona and creates an energy around them which people want to engage with. It is a keep part of their ability to get things done. They have it in balance and know when to stop being busy and rest, play or relax.

What about the people who are always busy but never productive? Highly bureaucratic or less mature organisations can be especially adept at fostering this. If you wish to emulate this style, there are some key features that you will want to build in.

These include:

·      All decisions made by committee

·      Endless committee structures

·      Overly complicated governance structures (extra bonus as these avoiding any individuals making decisions)

·      Meetings, meetings, meetings

·      Pre-meetings

·      Pre-pre-meetings

·      Multiple reviews of documents authored and reviewed by multiple parties

·      Email as a main form of communication

·      Information only shared at meetings making knowledge dependant on attendance

All of these are sure fire ways to put busyness as an obstacle in the path to productivity. Let’s be honest we will never eliminate meetings or emails both of which are culprits of the burden of busyness in the modern-day workplace. What we can do is take control how we manage the things that make us too busy.

The new Chief Financial Officer of a large organisation gave a talk about personal effectiveness as a leader. It was a good, inspiring talk with lots of personal tips. He promoted a limit of 2 meetings per day.

I asked him years later if he was able to maintain that. He diplomatically explained that his executive assistant worked very hard to make the most efficient use of his time. I suspect that was a ‘No’. He did say that it was still important to find time to not be in meetings.

If you are on your way to the 11th meeting of the day, consider how productivity and effectiveness may be declining. Reflect on how the least satisfying form of busy is the the busy that feels like you are working hard to achieve no progress.  Don’t dwell on it too long if the 12th meeting awaits. Take some time off being busy to plan how to move from busy to productive.

Below are some tips to help become less busy and more productive. Some are mine and some are harvested from role models who have graciously shared their solutions.

Busy to productive tips


· Use automatic rules to file emails that don’t need read immediately in folders for reading at your convenience. It’s easy to do on Outlook, ask a colleague or follow the instructions here

· Have all emails that you are ‘cc’d’ into go to a separate ‘cc’ folder. This allow you to focus on emails which are directed to you.

· You can even progress to the ‘auto delete’ of emails if you dare!

· There is also the old fashioned and perhaps radical option of having a conversation instead of sending or replying to an email. As well as reducing your inbox you get the benefits of social interaction.


· Check why you are being asked to attend. Most people are nice. They may add people to avoid you feeling excluded or because of hierarchical considerations. If you really don’t need to be there don’t go but do tell people you are not attending.

· No agenda = no attendance. Productive people don’t have time to turn up and see if there is anything to have a meeting about.

· Embrace cancelling meetings when there is no notable change or update. Maybe also consider re-setting your meeting frequency. Perhaps frequent meetings were required initially and now they aren’t. You can always increase again in future if things change.

· Avoid trying to defy the laws of physics. Also known as the back to back meeting day, sometimes with a few locations built in. Until teleportation is on offer this is a guaranteed busy maker and stress builder in employees. I’m thinking of starting a movement to campaign for the 50-minute meeting invite.

Personal Effectiveness

· Find out your best time for working and try to build time in your day for your most challenging/creative/detailed work to be done then. Match how you work best to when you work best, and you are guaranteed to be productive.

· Challenge your daily or weekly routine to see if what you are doing is keeping you busy or making you productive.

· Get comfortable saying no without qualification or excuse.

·  Priortise. You don’t have to do everything. Like all great leadership theory there is a 4-box model that can help. Start using this approach and before you realise this will become your habit.

There are several books which talk further and in more detail about applying this methodology. Try these tips and share them with others. If you have your own ways of changing busy to productive, I would enjoy hearing them so feel free to share them in the comments.

The good news is that productivity spreads faster than busyness as most people come to work intent on doing a good job. Success is a huge motivator for people. The only successful projects I have worked on or with are those that focus on productivity over busyness and busy boasting.

Except for the people busy being busy we all want to be more productive in our work life. It makes us feel more successful, more engaged and leaves more time and energy for our lives outside of work. Our understanding of work life balance and how the success of one has a positive impact on the other has never been better understood or acknowledged so perhaps it really is time to get less busy.

And as for sharks well, the reality is that 94% of sharks don’t need to keep moving to avoid drowning. Neither do we.