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Don’t Give Into Your Bias for Busyness

| September 18, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Greg Anderson is the author of today’s Tuesday Reading.  He is Senior Consultant and Leadership Coach at MOR Associates, a role he has had since 2009. Earlier he served in senior IT leadership positions at the University of Chicago and at MIT. His essay first appeared as note to participants in a MOR leadership program where Greg was a coach. [Greg may be reached at [email protected].]

“The trouble with every one of us that we don’t think enough . . . knowledge is the result of thought.”                                   – Thomas J. Watson, Sr., former CEO of IBM
Often when beginning a conversation with MOR participants, I’ll ask the typical “how are you?” question. A large majority of the time, the answer is, “I’m very busy.” Or some variant of busyness. 
Bradley R. Staats and his colleagues, provide several reasons for the immediate “busy” response:

  • We have an action bias: We would rather be seen doing something than doing nothing.
  • Working constantly is considered to be a measure of status and productivity. The appearance of being busy is preferred over the appearance of doing nothing even when that is the best strategy. 
  • Our organizations often reward people simply for the appearance of activity. Staff who put in long hours or are seen as always busy are described as “committed” or “dedicated.” 
  • Fear of regret. If we don’t do something, anything, then we may regret our inaction, even if doing something is wrong or ill-conceived.  

Studies, however, show that the appearance of being busy does not result in greater performance. At McMaster University, Erin Reid studied consultants to see how busyness affected performance. “She found that although managers penalized employees who admitted putting in less time at work, the managers could not tell the difference between those who worked long hours and those who worked fewer.” 
Staats maintains that this cultural norm to be always busy, keeps us from our most important work of all: learning. “We can’t just be knowledge workers; we must also be learning workers. And learning requires recharging and reflection, not constant action.” 
In his essay, Staats relates a personal story that confirms this lesson. Years ago, in a meeting with Harvard Business School professor David Upton, “I was rushing through my to-do list, trying to share everything I was working on. . . . When I took a breath, Dave held up a hand to get me to pause. He waited a couple of seconds, looked me in the eye and gave me one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received: “Brad, don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”
So, I plan to change my opening question (the first I of the 4 I’s) from “How are you?” to “What are you learning?” And, I will expect a different answer than, “I don’t have time to learn. I’m very busy.”
As we encourage stretch challenges, consider adding this breakthrough goal: “Don’t avoid thinking by being busy.”  Keep learning and thinking. 

  1. Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats, The Remedy for Unproductive Busyness, Harvard Business Review, April 2015.
  2. Bradley Staats, Don’t Just Dive Into Action: Stop to Think First, Wall Street Journal, July 2018.
  3. Roger Dean Duncan, Want to Stay Relevant? Never Stop Learning, Forbes June 2015

Greg’s advice is something that we all need to take to heart. Too often, we all work really hard, actually too hard, at being always busy. We don’t want to be seen as a slacker. So, take the time to give your mind a break. Go for a walk outside. Find a place where you can just let your mind wander, reflect. Taking time to reflect gives you an opportunity to learn, to make connections, to build confidence, and to correct your course.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.