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Breaking the Busyness Cycle

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Jessica Nusbaum, Director of Communications and Marketing at the UC Davis Library. She is a current MOR program participant.  Jessica may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

I tend to say “yes” to everything. There are many reasons: Genuine intellectual interest. Wanting to be helpful. Not wanting to disappoint anyone. A belief (this is the kicker) that I’m the only one who can do it or do it well.

For a long time, this served me well enough — I got to work on exciting projects, I built relationships across the organization, people valued my contributions — and I “handled” the extra work by working more. But it all became too much (surprise, surprise!). My MOR 360 colleague feedback reflected this, and I knew it too. So what to do?

As I’ve reflected and learned, I’ve created a few new practices to begin breaking the busyness cycle. 

Creating a Rubric for “Yes.” Before taking on a new task or project, I try to ask myself these questions:

  1. Is this task a strategic priority for the organization?

(Side note: If not, consider how to respond to the person to whom it is vital so as not to devalue their idea or request.)

  1. If it is a strategic priority, how urgent is it?
  2. Who else could do this? 
  3. If there is no one else who could do it, why not? 

The first two questions have already helped me say no to some things that, in the past, I would have immediately jumped in and started doing but, upon reflection, didn’t need to happen right away (or, in one case, at all).

The last two questions have helped me consider, in other situations, whether my skills, experience, or role truly make me uniquely positioned to do something or whether I haven’t taken the time to train, coach, or empower someone else to do it. Which, of course, points to the need to delegate.

Don’t Delegate. Entrust. Unfortunately, this ran headlong into a mental block about delegation: Even if I could train or coach someone else to do something, wasn’t it unfair to offload my busyness onto them? 

Our MOR workshop conversations about enabling others to grow and learn helped reframe my thinking. By holding onto specific tasks, I wasn’t protecting my team from being overwhelmed; I was holding back potential learning opportunities (and overwhelming myself in the process!).

Now, rather than wincing at the idea of “Can you do this because I don’t have time to get to it?” I seek opportunities to entrust tasks or projects to others so they can learn, feel ownership, and see their work being valued. And what I’ve found so far is that when I do, they virtually always say “yes” without batting an eye. More and more, I try to remember that planning a meeting agenda is also about planning action items for the team so everyone has a role.

The Payoff. A month or so after committing to this new way of working, I went on vacation with my family for two weeks — the kind of vacation where you don’t bring a computer. And this time, rather than telling colleagues, “Text me if anything comes up!” or facing a backlog when I returned, I invested time before I left in training, coaching, and deliberate handoffs of specific projects, and made it clear in my out-of-office response who to contact about different types of questions.

And you know what happened? When I peeked at email on my phone every couple of days, what I saw was things getting handled. When crises and questions came up, the team dealt with them. Their approach may have differed from mine, but it got done. And that’s what mattered. 

They also learned and grew, which mattered, too. I caught two things that I needed to forward to someone else — but it was just that. I forwarded them; I didn’t do them. Not only did I get to enjoy a real vacation, but reentry wasn’t so bad either because the things got done by someone else.

The take-home message is something I’ve known for a long time, but I always need to be reminded of: Yes, you have unique contributions to offer. But you don’t have to do this alone.

Last week, we asked which characteristic of grit resonates most.

  • 28% said they are leaning on relationships to accomplish goals.
  • 26% said challenges don’t phase them.
  • 24% said overcoming obstacles to reach goals.
  • 17% said they persevere to finish what they start.
  • 5% said being aware of their emotional buttons and managing their response.

We were pretty evenly split between leaning on relationships, not being phased by challenges, and overcoming obstacles as the characteristics of grit that resonated in achieving our goals. These ideas are all closely related. Relationships provide a foundation for overcoming obstacles through encouragement or assistance. Likewise, the support of others can mitigate the impact we feel from challenges. Speaking of our feelings, while only 1 in 20 of us resonated most with understanding and managing our emotional responses, that is a vital part of grit. Whatever goals we may have, grit can help us to get there, including controlling our busyness, as we saw in this week’s reading.