I used to be so proud of how busy I was. A number of years ago I got to start doing project based work for the first time in my career. The team I was brought on to was new and there were three of us who would just take on projects and handle them from soup to nuts. Because we were high performing motivated people giving us structure wasn’t high on priority list so there was some limited organization to how it all worked but it all got completed and well. We would research vendors and their processes, determine the costs versus benefits, and then implement them within teams. I am not exactly a type A personality so it seemed exciting and fun to have so many different projects, that I could just work through following my own lead, that I could be proud of. It was interesting because all of the projects would impact large portions of the department if not the department in its entirety so there was a lot of visibility into our work. Most of the time the work that you’re completing on a day to day basis is really behind the scenes type of work. It impacts the team, department, or company but in more subtle ways. For example you might be compiling case notes for an attorney who, based on what you provided, was able to build a strong case and win in court. Or you might be the person drew up the plans for a home to be built but the crew actually followed them and built it. There is certainly impact in both of those roles but you don’t get to experience the finished product. The work that we did on that team wasn’t like that. You might work for weeks or months on a project and once implemented it was all on us whether it succeeded or not, and there was never just one project going on at a time.
I loved it. I was thriving off of it. I remember once a supervisor (at that time, though I was leading indirectly, I was not in a leadership role) asked me how I got everything done at work and spent time with my kids. I was down right flattered and tickled pink that she would ask me that. I responded that I was in meetings all day at work, hung out with my kids in the evening, and then would work after I put them to bed. And I was so proud of that. To be honest it was only even partially true. I mean I did do that from time to time but it wasn’t a daily occurrence that I was living by. It wasn’t even a regular occurrence. There might be a big implementation that needed a lot of attention, or training that took up most of the day, that required me to work at night but not on the regular.
So why would I say that? Someone was asking out of concern for my wellbeing how I was balancing it all. (Note, we are not starting a women in the workforce discussion here. I am right there with you on the “whoa she asked what?!” however we’re talking about the intent and her intent was to be kind.) So why would I embellish the work I was doing to make it sound like more, more time, more tasks, more stress? Because I wanted her to know how busy I was.
Because important is obviously the synonym for busy.
Who doesn’t want to be important and needed? I’m not talking about being in charge of everything or having all of the stress of being responsible for it all but with probably every aspect of life we want to be important in it. Having a busy schedule in that area means people want a lot of our time, if people want our time then we must be important. Mystery solved. That is what I was doing. I loved feeling important at work. I hadn’t had that feeling for years so I was really jumping in with both feet when it was available again. If someone wanted me in the meeting it meant they thought I was important enough to be there. I would throw everything I had into that meeting, project, issue to have the biggest impact, and then leave telling the others how I needed to get to another meeting on something else. (You know, to remind them that I was busy, and therefore important.) I was taking on and loving every minute of the work, but never stopping to think what it was actually accomplishing.
If you’re wondering what the actual tipping point was that I had a break through and realized how silly my approach was. I didn’t. I didn’t have some break through myself to fix this. What happened was there was a change in leadership up the chain who saw the potential of our team and the work we were doing. That leader was instrumental in redirecting our efforts to, prioritize, increase the value we were adding, and align the strategies.
A couple things I’m reminding myself of since then.
Movement without a strategy is not progress its gyration. All of our activities that we choose take us away from something else. So when you decide to do something you’re essentially deciding not to take on something else. This is important because the things that you choose are therefore your priority over all else at that time. Answering emails over your lunch break is taking priority over being with your children, scheduling that doctor’s appointment you’ve been putting off, working out, or sharing some community with friends over a meal. Though I’m not a proponent of doing it regularly, sometimes answering the emails is a good prioritization because it responds to your team’s questions, accomplishes a task that you wouldn’t otherwise have time to do, or lets your boss know that you are making your work a priority. The point is, you have to decide what your strategy is and ensure that what you are busying yourself with is moving you in the direction you want to go rather than just gyrating where you’re at.
Being asked to be/do anything means someone thinks you’ll add value to it. So actually do that, instead of being important. Once I shifted my focus from being important (exclusively about me) to adding value (about the other people or the project) I was so much more helpful in those situations. I could actually provide insight, create next steps and take on to-dos, and I could help provide direction on the overall company or department goal. Sometimes people really do invite you to the meeting because of your title or seniority or because they think you’re important. When I suspect I’m in those situations I now say, “I don’t feel like I’m adding much value to this, what is it that you’re needing from me so I make sure you’re getting it?” This helps two fold because often it redirects me so that I am actually useful but other times it gets me dismissed from the meeting, project, etc. Which, if your focus is adding value and moving within your strategy toward your goals, is such a gift.
Stop telling people you’re busy. This is one thing that is just a gross topic to me, probably because I’m very conscious of the busy trap now and I still do it sometimes. When someone asks “How’s it going?”, do not say busy. That is not a response to that question. While it might get a knowing smile and a head nod it doesn’t mean anything. Instead, novel idea for most of us I know, answer the question. Tell them what you’re working on, tell them what you’ve accomplished, tell them what you have coming down the pipe. You could respond with;
“Not too bad, I am plowing through some voicemails after being out and then I’ll catch up on email.”
“Great! I just finished putting together my new lesson plan and its going to be so good!”
“Good, we’re getting ready to head out on vacation so I’m just tying up some loose ends on my desk.”
All of those are clear that you’re busy, but more importantly demonstrate why and how it is impacting the people you work with or the customers you serve. Also, you may notice none are an awkward book of an answer. If on the off chance someone does greet you with a question strictly in passing and doesn’t actually want an answer, say great, say amazing, say fantastic, say something that will throw them off balance and brighten their day.