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Friday, December 02, 2005

Career-Op - Too Busy? - December 2, 2005

You hear it all the time. from your management, your co-workers and even your family. “I’m too busy!” “I can’t stop long enough to think what I should be doing.” “I am running, running, running.” The fact is, many of us are just “running” through our work and our lives, always busy, yet not very productive. We are caught in the endless cycle of “doing” and leave no time for the more important task of “thinking.”

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Many times in my career I have seen high-tech workers, myself included, blindly heading down a path only to suddenly realize that we are spending hours of time on something that didn’t need to be done, or could be done in a much more efficient fashion. We had allowed the sense of urgency to overwhelm our normally clear thinking and drive us into busy-ness. Sometimes our management started us down this road, but often we were the creators of our own trouble. For whatever reason, we had failed to think before we acted, leading us to waste time and energy on the wrong task at the wrong time.


The most important tool in preventing “too busy” syndrome is your own mind. If you can remember to pause and think, even for a moment, you can prevent hours of lost productivity. Instead of simply diving into an issue, take a few minutes to think about why you are doing something. I know. I know. I can hear you saying “Of course, Doug. That’s simply common sense.” The trouble is, as you probably already know, common sense isn’t always that common in the workplace. While we might know intellectually that we should think before we start working, life can often overwhelm us. Pressure from our clients, our management and even our co-workers – even ourselves -- can lead us to abandon this simple tenet. This is why you have to fight against it, with all your might.

Urgency is the usual culprit when busy-ness strikes. A crisis is upon you and everyone is crying out for a solution. In many cases, though, the nature of the crisis might not be clear. Are customer complaints caused by a bug in the software or a flaw in the operating system? Is the network crashing because of internal issues or external wiring? If you don’t stop and think about the cause of the crisis you are liable to start working very diligently to solve the wrong problem. Once again, busy, but not very productive.

Step away

When you are confronted with your next crisis, don’t let those around you drive you into urgent action without thinking first. Find some reason to excuse yourself from the group, from your manager, your co-workers and spend 1 minute thinking about the problem. Tell them you need to go get your tools, your recovery disks, your coffee, whatever it takes. Isolate yourself from the urgency in order to gain a little perspective. Then, when you return, you might find that your clearer head will prevail and you can begin attacking the “real” problem.

In my career, I know that I have some clients that are experts at pushing my panic button. They can instill a sense of urgency in me that threatens to run away with my thinking. With them, I have to actively counteract this tendency. I have to breathe deeply, step away and try to put the situation in order before I follow their lead. I am not sure why these clients are able to push me over into urgency so easily, but it is probably because they are very close to my own personality. I can sometimes run away with myself, even on personal projects, so they do something that simply activates my natural tendencies.

If you find yourself constantly saying you are “too busy”, you need to stop and take a few minutes to discern whether you are busy, productive or hopefully, some combination of both. Being productive with a sense of urgency is a good place to be, if a bit draining. Urgency without any sense of productivity or accomplishment is a sure road to career burnout. No matter what your position in your company, it is up to you to break the busy-ness cycle and get your work and your career back on-track. Someone has to take the time to think, otherwise everyone suffers.


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