Does Busyness Really Mean Productivity?

By Steven E. Sacks, CPA, CGMA, ABC

Did you ever notice when you call an associate or a friend or a business of any type, most often than not he or she will always respond with “I’m really busy” or “I’ve been jammed up.”? It does not matter the time of the year, much less the time of week or day. Has busy become too colloquial or just a throw-away line? What is actually meant by “busy”?  Or, more specifically, what is the condition of “busyness”?

Is it the inability to make sense of a messy desk and figure out what tackle first? Is it ruminating over one person’s issue versus someone else’s situation? If there is no actual, tangible work being done, does thinking count as being busy?

“Busyness,” unlike “workload” or “activity” or “projects,” does not describe the specific nature of assignments or a checklist of things to do, but is really a  collection of vague tasks that when attached to one another creates a day replete with constant motion. When trying to explain to someone how your day was, the first word that comes to mind is a blur.

Plan Your Day and Work Your Plan…or as Close to it as Possible

You arrive at the office, grab that first cup of coffee and sit at your desk. You see unopened mail, reports to review, a list of calls to return and the unexpected colleague who wants to chat with you for a few minutes. What you planned as a reasonable roadmap for your day now will include detours and speedbumps. You now have to work in a linear fashion and or take your chances on multitasking.

What you really needed was that 10-15 minutes to plan your day and then at the end of the day compare what you mapped out to the final destination you reached. Was your busyness a result of real work that had to be achieved? Did you schedule your day in such a way that what you planned could be accomplished?

Before the Smartphone, we used the Daytimer® and At-a-Glance, among other providers. Here you could add more context and comments about the meeting in a space that did not have the space limitation of the iPhone, or the switching between apps. You could add more context about the meeting and side notes – even some thoughts you wanted to raise or avoid. Of course, you could not synch your meeting with someone else’s calendar, but then we had the phone, greater concentration and more of a commitment to follow up.

Technology Grows Meetings

Technology allows more people to receive a meeting notice irrespective if the topic is relevant to them. So more stuff is added to everyone’s already full plate. Your participation may not require a major piece, but you may be responsible (mistakenly) for pieces that have deadlines. And with deadlines, comes meetings and conference calls and emails. You tried to offer up something that appears useful but the assignment was outside the flow of your core responsibilities. Maybe your enthusiasm waned or your understanding was lacking. The result is that an aura of busyness was imposed on you, while you were trying to drive your own team’s accomplishments that had more relevance and value to your organization.

Busyness Needs to be Outranked by Real, Tangible and Valuable Work

Remember the pink “While You Were Out” slip? The usual practice was to return the person’s phone call immediately after returning from a meeting, lunch or vacation, especially if the caller was your superior, a vendor or an important client. You undoubtedly called the person back as courtesy dictated. Before the advent of voice mail systems you needed a competent receptionist or secretary. These people could add context to the call by indicating if there was a sense of urgency, or if it was someone calling just to catch up.

The various electronic chains have changed all this. Now when returning emails and phone calls require an internal voting system. What and who to address first? And does everyone have to hear back from you? It’s Monday morning, your first day back from vacation, and its 9:02am. The sheen from your vacation has already disappeared. If you made the return call at 9:03am and do not hear back until Friday afternoon, something’s up. But what is it?

It is not just a matter of prioritization but also perspective.

One person’s view that the work must be done yesterday can be another person’s I’ll get to it when I can. Both parties need to strike an understanding of where the request fits into the larger picture. Just because one person wants something immediately fails to understand the others person’s capacity, schedule and priorities.

Why Do Companies Encourage Busyness and Why Do Employees Sign On to It?

There are many reasons employees and senior-level people latch on to this philosophy. There could be the matter of guilt, obligation, fear or reprisals or loss of position. Maybe it’s because that has always been the top-down values from leadership. Maybe it’s become part of practice or policy and there is no one or no group that wants to question the art of new thinking because they will be alienated.

Like political movements, the efforts have to start at the grass roots; in this case those who lead departments, administration and operations should inquire whether the meeting or assignment is consistent with the firm or company’s goals and what is the fallout, if any, if action is delayed or postponed? The more this question is repeated and heard, the greater likelihood additional thought will be invested before a meeting or initiative is announced. Employees have to shirk complacency and step up and voice their opinions in a way that is respected by management.

So stop or limit the issues that give rise to busyness even though problems may arise if its removal requires a change in staff attitude. Employees have become accustomed to busyness because they don’t understand how their roles fit into the overall goals of the company or perhaps they no longer have the mental strength to push back.

What About People Who Find Comfort in Busyness?

Like any environment that foments complacency, trying to change busyness will be met with resistance. Watch out for those employees who will perpetuate the environment of busyness. A review of post-busyness time proves that nothing of substance was really accomplished. But it can keep them employed.

If you don’t allow people to improve processes, you reduce their motivation and prevent your business from growing or becoming more profitable. If you are the prisoner of busyness and your family and friends are collateral damage, it is time to remove yourself from the busyness that takes you away from really making a difference or more important, using the time for personal growth.

Studies have shown that reduce or bar the use of email after hours have evidenced improved performance. Consider this article about the restriction of after-hours email or the new French law that took effect January 1, 2017.

There is no email (except involving family members) that should be read and acted upon the very instant it is sent. For the workplace, however, this requires a reconciliation of cultures and philosophies.

Dispelling a Myth: Busyness should never be confused with productivity.


About Steve

Steven Sacks is the CEO of Solutions to Results, LLC, a consultancy that specializes in helping individuals, firms and organizations meet the challenges of communicating with clarity and purpose. Visit his website at