There’s looking busy and there’s actually getting stuff done — a concept famously illustrated by one George Costanza:
Of course, the art of appearing super busy lies in more than just a stressed facial expression: a meeting calendar full of “back-to-back-to-back” meetings that require a “hard stop” is even better. All too often, public expressions of one’s busyness become social plumage conveying importance. In the strangely succinct words of The New Yorker: “If you’re busy, you seem important.”
That’s not to say that people are consciously hiding behind empty busyness in order to display importance. Rather, there are two other main culprits, both of which trap well-intentioned people within the labyrinth of stressful but largely unproductive work. Those culprits are Inertia and Urgency.
From The New Yorker again:
[T]he long hours may be neither the product of what we really want nor the oppression of workers by the ruling class, the old Marxist theory. They may be the byproduct of systems and institutions that have taken on lives of their own and serve no one’s interests. That can happen if some industries have simply become giant make-work projects that trap everyone within them.
What counts as work, in the skilled trades, has some intrinsic limits; once a house or bridge is built, that’s the end of it. But in white-collar jobs, the amount of work can expand infinitely through the generation of false necessities—that is, reasons for driving people as hard as possible that have nothing to do with real social or economic needs.
Anybody who has endured the Twilight Zone-esque netherworld of the “recurring check point meeting” knows exactly what the soul-crushing helplessness of being in front of this grinding steamroller of Inertia feels like.
When everything is urgent, nothing is important. Regardless of how “important” something should be, it will all-too-often get pushed aside when something “urgent” plays the ultimate trump card: Time. We’ve all heard some variation of this: “Yes, of course that’s more important, but it can wait; this has to be done NOW.” How does the importance of something beyond today’s horizon ever get around the fierce urgency of NOW?
Ironically enough, ignoring some of the “Urgent” problems is the very recipe for beating them. Consider the uniquely clarifying way Seth Godin explains this paradox:
[B]reaking news of any kind is rarely important. Important means: long-term, foundational, coherent, in the interest of many, strategic, efficient, positive…
If you take care of important things, the urgent things don’t show up as often. The opposite is never true.
The news we consume changes us. Not just the news manufactured by CNN, but the news manufactured by our boss, our investors, our customers. Our choice, then, is to decide whether we want to engage in the hobby of living through other people’s breaking news instead of focusing on what’s actually important.
As you move through your work day, whether you are dictating the meeting schedule and demands for others, or attending to the tasks and meetings set by others, stop and take stock with each one:
- Is this urgent because it’s important, or simply important because it’s urgent?
- Is this actually accomplishing something beyond the appearance of accomplishing something?
Be willing to break convention — whether that of Inertia or Urgency — and say “No.” Avoid the rabbit trails of habit and fear; use that most precious treasure of Time for doing the work that really matters.