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The Art of Being Busy

Differentiating Urgency & Importance

The frustrating reality of work is that most of what you do is a complete waste of time. Even entrepreneurs, who slog away putting in 14-hour days to their company, will inevitably waste the majority of their time.

This is because we tend to be terrible at prioritisation.

Something seemingly urgent will come up & we divert all of our resources to solve the problem, without stopping to think whether it is important in the first place. Or whether it’s even a problem at all.

The problem of conflating the urgent with the important is the greatest drain on productivity in the workplace.

In a corporate environment, the greater complexity of larger teams working together causes further damage to productivity.

There tends to be a lot of people all doing different things, with no clear idea of which direction they are meant to be going, all protecting their own little corner of the company, all trying to get ahead of each other.

A pervasive, manic busyness tends to seep into the culture, with everyone rushing around trying to push through some urgent, but unimportant, change to a product or frenetically working to get an irrelevant report completed.

It’s not inaccurate to say that most companies just about survive despite having a load of headless chickens charging about the place, revved up on caffeine & adrenaline.

As you can imagine, this is not conducive to the long-term interests of the business or the employees themselves.

 Human Limitations

There is also a huge amount of evidence supporting the idea that our window for highly productive work is very much limited.

Companies tend to push their employees into working 8- to 12-hour days, but are you really productive during that time? How much productive, important work do you really think you get done?

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that humans have a limit of 3–4 hours a day of intensive, focused work before we burn out.

This is capped even lower if you aren’t sleeping 7–8 hours, eating well, exercising or resting properly outside of work hours.

How productive are you after only sleeping 3–4 hours? What about when you’re a bit hungover? Or you’re hungry?

For me personally, these factors are hugely impactful on my productivity. If I haven’t slept properly, the next day is going to be almost entirely a waste of time. Maybe I’ll get 1–2 good hours of work in if I have a strong coffee before starting. But usually, I may as well just take the day off & catch up on sleep.

One of the issues, however, is that some people are so used to living in a constantly, tired, semi-burnt out state that what they think is a good, highly productive day is usually nowhere near it.

They are so used to a constant feeling of tiredness & of a state of low-impact work that whenever they manage to squeeze in 20+ minutes of focused, immersive work, they see that as the maximum limit of human capability.

Stop being busy

Start approaching your days differently.

If colleagues put demands on your time, push back. Question the importance of what they are asking you to do? Is it important? Or is it just urgent? Are they doing it just because their boss wants them to do? Or because they believe it has merit?

If you work for yourself, then focus on maximising the 3–4 hours you are productive. Break them up throughout the day, block it out as focus time in the mornings, cut out the faffing around that tends to clutter your day. Take the rest of the day off for learning, coffee with friends or others in your industry, or finally starting the language lessons you always wanted to do.

The hard part comes next, however.

Where before you had problems to solve & urgent issues to attend to, you will be left with a void.

You can no longer comfort yourself with the sense of purpose & progress that comes from always doing, from always working away at some problem.

When you limit your working hours, you suddenly find yourself with 12 hours a day that seems like a void.

The insulation of busyness is stripped away & you will find yourself asking hard questions. You will find yourself putting yourself through rigorous self-examination. You will start examining the direction & purpose of your business on a much deeper level. You will be able to entertain the creative, outlandish ideas you never had time or energy to think about.

You will strip away all the urgent, clutter of a busy life & finally be able to differentiate the urgent from the important, the low-impact from the high impact work.

Anxiety will come, inevitably. You will worry about whether you’re getting enough done. Whether you’re working on the right thing. Whether all the psychology is just bullshit.

But you must push through.

The gravity of this change will hit you. When you only have limited time to work, you approach things differently. You finally start asking the important questions.

Is this important? How can I estimate the impact of this task? What will happen if it doesn’t get done? How can I get it done as efficiently as possible? Has someone done it before? Is there an easier way?

The work you do end up doing will be great work. Work with the fat stripped away, without the comfort of busyness & urgency clouding your judgement & allowing you to hide from the hard truths you must face.

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