Being Busy ⇏ Working on Things That Matter

I have encountered many successful professionals who — in the throes of juggling multiple priorities and working long hours — mistake being busy with working on the right things. It’s really hard to tell the difference, when everyone is asking things of you and you are barely getting stuff out before the next onslaught of requests comes your way.  At the end of your week, you may feel a sense of accomplishment for having completed so many things….but, sometimes in the grand scheme of things, all you really did was play a week’s worth of Whack-a-Mole.  

This “distraction of busy-ness” is present everywhere: at McKinsey, at D. E. Shaw, at my last two companies….and probably wherever you work.  And no roles are immune, from an EA through to a senior executive.  Unfortunately, people typically become aware of their “distraction of busy-ness” during performance review or promotion time, when an employee is told that they haven’t made sufficient progress in a priority area. The responses are always the same:  “I have to get all of these things done so don’t have time to focus on other priorities.”  And — while managers are sympathetic — at the end of the day, it’s those other priorities that warrant the raise or promotion.

As a Head of People for a start-up, this happens to me a lot.  There is an endless list of requests and necessary tasks that demand my attention — responding to requests from the CEO; meeting with employees about questions or concerns they have; weekly 1:1s with my team members; making sure we are dotting i’s and crossing t’s on the HR compliance front (luckily I have someone on my team who oversees this); responding to emails; sending out regular updates; approving timecards/expenses/bills; interviewing candidates; and attending a lot of meetings.  

I can easily spend 40+ hours a week in “maintenance mode” — just keeping the trains running.  And that is sometimes very tempting when I’ve had a long week or am exhausted.  But that’s not going to move the needle in making our workplace better, in advancing our people practices, in convincing our leaders to experiment with different paths. These are the ways I can make an impact as a leader and a shaper of our organization’s future, and that’s what I remind myself whenever it hits 7 PM and I want to pack it in for the day.

So, what does this mean and how can I/you make time to focus on the things that matter?  I don’t have any earth-shattering revelations here, just a few basic steps:

  1. Declare what your purpose is.  In your role, make sure you understand what real ‘success’ means and what it looks like.  Is it responding to customers within an hour, or is it creating a delightful customer experience every time?  (I would venture to guess it should be the latter, but many folks probably think it’s the former.)  Document what you believe success looks like and how that manifests in your daily work.
  2. Prioritize and prune.  Examine how you spend your day, and pick out things that aren’t moving you towards your documented goal.  Mentally sort these ‘non-priority’ activities into ‘non-discretionary’ and ‘discretionary’ activities, and within those, ‘time sensitive’ versus ‘time-flexible’ tasks.  Through compartmentalization, it will hopefully become clearer how you should spend your time, even if it means there are days when you can’t focus on your ‘true’ priorities.
  3. Delegate what you can.  If you have a team, add another filter to your work:  what are things that only you can accomplish — because of your stature, your knowledge, your relationships?  Those things should stay on your plate.  Everything else is up for delegation.
  4. Spend 30 minutes to step back and assess your progress.  To make sure you don’t get sucked into the vortex of the day-to-day, step back weekly or bi-weekly and evaluate whether you are spending time on the right things, and sufficient progress is being made towards your goals.  If not, go back to #2.
  5. Ask for help.  Your manager’s job is to help you stay focused on goals and priorities, and to unblock you.  Explain how you are prioritizing your work and see what can be postponed or removed completely from your scope.  It’s also great for your manager to see that you are trying to spend time on the things that matter, so when it’s time for performance evaluations, that gets factored into the dialogue.

It’s much easier to say to do these things, but when you are distracted by busy-ness, and everything seems super-urgent, it can be hard to heed these steps.  So, if there are 2 steps that will keep you pointed in the right direction, they are #1 and #4:  Know your goal/purpose, and spend 30 minutes (bi)weekly to assess progress.  

For what it’s worth, your alternatives to doing the above are pretty crappy:

  • Treading water doing things that maintain the status quo
  • Sacrificing your personal time in the evenings, weekends, holidays

Both of these alternatives suck.  Hopefully this gives you incentive to take these steps.

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