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Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity

| May 2, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity, is an essay by Shane Anderson, Director, Solution Architecture in the Business Solutions Group at Yale Information Services.  The essay first appeared as a program reflection earlier this year.
Before I began the MOR Leaders Program, I was struggling to get important work done.  I was going from meeting to meeting with no transition time.  I was chronically late to meetings.  I was “multi-tasking” in meetings to meet deadlines and complete my work.  I was stressed and people knew it.
It is easy to think that you must be important to an organization if you are so busy you cannot get all your work done!  (Read that sentence again.)  Busyness is not a proxy for productivity!
One goal I have been working on is to simply “Expand my sphere of influence and exert more influence so that I can advance the strategic goals of my University, my organization – Information Technology Services, and my group.” 
“Exerting more influence” specifically addresses a perception my manager had held that I was not weighing in enough on important topics.  I was neither representing my group’s interests nor leading the organization by offering up my knowledge and judgment.  One of the actions I have for this goal is:  “I will … begin to speak up in meetings to let my views be known and to add value, no matter how small.”  Simple, right?
In reflecting on this goal, I realized two things:  I often don’t speak up because

  • The meeting goes exactly as I want it to go and the conclusions reached are at least satisfactory to me;  and
  • I am multi-tasking – and excuse my lack of participation based on my perception that, as noted above, I don’t need to participate. 

I’ve come to realize that even if things go exactly as I want them to go, I must still weigh in.  To remain silent is to have no opinion … and that is never the case.  Even if I totally agree, I must say:  “I totally agree.”  Wherever possible I should add “because …”  To say nothing is to forever relinquish the “talking stick” on that subject.  It also leads to others asking why I bothered to come to the meeting.  Was it “Just to suck up the oxygen in the room?”
My second reason for not speaking up is really an excuse, multi-tasking.  I decided that I wanted to see how much I was multi-tasking.  In the first week of observing myself, I caught myself multitasking many, many times.  For as much as 40-60% of my time in meetings, I was doing something else. 
By the second week, I started to catch myself about to multi-task.  At this point, I would stop myself.  And again, I noticed two things:

  • There were plenty of things to weigh in on.  And, I was totally unaware of them!
  • And, as I noted this and the meeting progressed, I became more and more stressed, fighting the urge to multi-task.

In looking at my stress, it became apparent that it was all about the perceived need to get more work done.  Important work.
Somewhere around the beginning of the second week, I came in early.  I did not look at my email.  I opened my calendar and started looking.  I intentionally declined a meeting that could be taken care of with a five-minute conversation.  I then scheduled a meeting with myself.  The new meeting had an agenda of “Get invoice, import landscape diagram, complete, and transmit to customer so that I can lead a discussion to approve final design.” 
I was relieved because I had not been sure when I would get that work done.  Surely, I would have gotten it done by multitasking in a meeting – all the while being distracted and distracting others. 
As I thought about the relief, and about the “distraction,” I realized two things:

  • I have been offering up my calendar for consumption by anyone for just about anything; and 
  • I have been assuming I would have free time within which to get work done.

Based on this, I immediately scheduled another hour by looking for another meeting that I did not need to attend.  I scheduled another hour of “Deep Work” to perform a specification review and solution design summary requested by my group’s development manager. 
By the end of the day, both items were completed and I had initiated the appropriate next steps.  Better, they were done in a manner that did not represent a hurried, distracted execution.  And, I had attended the meetings I needed to attend, focused and weighed in as required. 
I repeated this the next morning.  I evaluated the meetings on my calendar for “courtesy” invites and for meetings where my role was either marginal or even questionable.  I filled the time slots left open with “Deep Work” appointments with specific agendas.  Yet again, this yielded high productivity and more polished work products.  By day three, I had scheduled recurring meetings for “Deep Work.” 
As time has passed, I realized that sometimes people need time with me for truly important tasks.  In such cases, I now can give them some of my Deep Work time.  So, the “Deep Work” time also provided flex time for important work with colleagues.  My rule about this is that if I use “Deep Work” for flex time, I reclaim it by rescheduling the lost time later in the week. 
At present I have scheduled two hours per day, or 20% of my time to work in this fashion.  I have also scheduled additional “Status” time for email and administration. 
At this point, the recurring meetings are in place and are being respected.  In our culture, if you have something like “Deep Work” or “STATUS” visible, people will schedule over it.  So, I mark “Deep Work” as “Private.”  People may assume what they wish about what I am doing. I know that what I am doing is being a good steward of my time, which is a university resource!
In addition to these practices, I now look weekly for those meetings that I can skip in favor of a five-minute conversation.  There are more than a few.  I’d say 20% of all meetings that come my way can be addressed in this manner.  If a meeting remains on my calendar, it is because it is important. 
The outcome is this:  I now have time to do the important work that requires quiet, concentrated effort.  I no longer must multi-task in meetings.  I can focus on the meeting at hand. 
I have become more engaged in the right meetings and I am participating more.  I consider it essential to speak up in every meeting.  I am taking this to the next level by planning my presence in the meeting using the “Stepping Up Your Presence” Worksheet to remind me of the contributions I want to make in the meeting and the outcomes I wish to influence. 
Remember the action in support of my goal to bring my influence to bear?  “I will … start to speak up in meetings to let my views be known and to add value, no matter how small.”  More than a practice, I am well on the way to making this a habit.  Practice makes permanent. 
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Shane has given us a clear instructive process for refocusing our efforts by being very intentional and adding more value to our service for our university.  What he describes are a set of practices which through regular use will become very deep habits.  Do begin to put them into practice in the coming week and make them permanent.
Make it a great week.  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Cal Newport, Deep Work, Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Hachette Book Group, 2016.  A summary can be found here.