Being busy is overrated

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Leadership

In her book “The Art of Rest”, author Claudia Hammond shares a super piece of research from Columbia Business School.

Participants of the study were asked to assess the social status of a fictional woman called Sally Fisher based on two different sets of Facebook posts.

One version of Sally said things like “Enjoying a long lunchbreak” or “Done with work!” at 5pm on a Friday. The other version posted “Quick ten minute lunch” or, last thing on a Friday, “Still working”.

Participants rated the “busy” Sally as higher in status, more in demand and wealthier than “lazy” Sally. They reasoned that, if she was too busy to stop for a proper lunch, she must be important!

How busy are you?

It’s normal to be asked not “how are you?” but “are you busy?” as if an affirmative answer means being constantly on the go is A Good Thing.

Yet is it really something to be celebrated?

Being busy can make us feel good. We get a sense of achievement from “doing stuff”, ticking off our to-do list and helping people with their problems, not to mention an adrenaline rush.

But if you’re a leader, being in constant motion as you react to the demands around you isn’t great news.

As the captain of the ship, you need to be keeping an eye on the horizon, ensuring your crew is keeping the ship on course and making corrections where needed.

You can’t do that if you’re in “doing” mode all the time.

The too-hard box

However, we’ve evolved to prioritise short term goals over long-term ones – think food and sex. Our cave-living ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they’d prioritised working up a 5-year plan over hunting for food.

So it’s not surprising that many of my clients struggle to step back and create space to think, let alone know what to do with it. One new Director summed it up, “If I create space to think, what am I meant to think about?!”

Being busy is a great way of avoiding the “too hard” box.

How to busy less and lead more

Here’s some questions to help you reflect on how you’re spending your time and energy and what you may benefit from changing :

  • What impact do you want to have as a leader? What do you care about?
  • What are you allowing to be more important than that? For example, getting “stuff” done or keeping people happy.

  • What are you avoiding by being busy? For example, the discomfort of being alone with your thoughts or having to confront questions about what you really want. 

Reflecting on your responses, what would you benefit from changing?

And finally…

A hard-hitting quote from Tim Ferriss which makes me feel as though my knuckles are being rapped, but I have to agree with him : “Being busy is not the same as being productive. In fact, being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”

Plus some related blogs I’ve written that might be helpful :


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Alison Reid is an experienced executive coach who helps new Directors lead with confidence and step-change their influence and impact. She works with them 1-1, empowering them to focus on what matters, communicate with impact and stay calm under pressure so they can lead themselves and others to great results. She's the author of Unleash Your Leadership : How to Worry Less and Achieve More. Download an extract or buy the book.

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