Busy Fools

Written by Steve on 22/07/2019

The Theory

Success means putting in the hours. By putting in the hours, you will show commitment and stamina and prove your worthiness for promotion up the greasy pole of corporate succession planning.

‘To be successful round here you need to work long hours, often weekends and bank holidays. We expect you to be available to answer calls, emails and summons to the office whenever we need you.’ 

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this sounds all too familiar to me on both a personal and professional level. My first ‘proper’ job was with a large multi-site retailer. Upon donning my manager’s badge and uniform, I remember distinctly being told by my then District Manager. “Your contract is thirty nine hours per week; that means four eight hour days and one ‘early finish’ (imagine the disgust in his voice…) when you work a seven hour day; but you can forget that. I expect you to do eight hours a day for the company and you’ll do at least one hour of overtime every day..for me. (This ‘overtime was unpaid by the way). Additionally, you will be expected to travel up to an hour each way to work (again unpaid). Being keen and committed trainee managers, I and my fellow trainees eagerly swallowed this rhetoric without challenge and began a career of long days and seemingly longer journeys to and from work. Thinking those who gave more in hours and travel time would be at the front of the queue when promotions were to be had.

The Reality

Our business and societies tend to value activity and ‘being busy’; often taking a dim and cynical view of reflection, consideration, meditation and pausing before responding, labelling them as inactivity and idle time. There’s good reason behind this ‘hurry-up’ nature too. We are neurally biased towards immediacy…we’ll buy what we want now and worry about the credit card bill later, we’ll eat and drink the wrong things now and exercise later…Couple this with a daily increase in accessibility to, and speed of service in everything from wifi to food service and we have the perfect storm of busyness. 

Ask anyone what a good ‘work ethic’ is and they will talk about going above and beyond, doing whatever it takes and being relentlessly busy. Few will discuss the need for good rest and downtime to be able to commit the necessary energy the following day or consider different perspectives before making a decision. In fact, it seems the greater our consideration, the more we risk being accused of procrastination or lack of vision. Sadly, the norm rather than the exception nowadays is to sleep with our mobile phones at our bedside…just in case you get the call in the wee small hours.

The path to business success seems to be one of constant, consistent and focused activity.

We see this time and again in workshops where groups become restless and frustrated at being ‘held back’ from getting into action on a task or being allowed to voice the most obvious answer. Even in the face of facts and logic that their proposed activity or solution will not work, groups of highly intelligent people will sacrifice getting things right over getting busy quickly. In our workplaces, an accepted and espoused belief that activity and action create benefit, our valuable employees will begin to prove their worth by filling their working day with ‘stuff’ which keeps them busy (or at least looking busy to the casual observer)…after all, a full diary must mean I’m valuable surely?

Back to my personal example, lets do a little maths here.

  • A basic week will be the contracted 39 hours, plus the extra hour (because we don’t do ‘early days’) plus 5 extra hours. (45 hours)
  • Thats 6 extra hours a week…A grand total of 24 extra hours per month. 
  • Working on an average year of 11 months, that’s equivalent to 264 hours per year! 
  • OR An extra 6.77 working weeks! Kind of like giving up all of your holidays…and a lot more.
  • And thats before we factor in the extra 40+ hours per week travelling to work and back

At a monetary level, that’s the equivalent of an annual bonus of 6.7 weeks salary

OR as it stands, the equivalent of a 14% pay cut.

And this is just the tip of a dark iceberg which can often include missed lunch breaks, and taking work home. Any takers?

Wicked Thinking

Are you measuring (and rewarding) Activity or Results/value?

How does your organisation view ‘idle-time’? What is your company policy on working from home or flexible working hours? What are the first thoughts and words uttered when someone goes home on time or early? 

What Value do you add?

One way of examining your ‘value’ is to have a go at this exercise:

  • Write a detailed list of your daily/weekly activities. Aim for 12 or more.
  • Now write each activity on sticky notes, one activity per note
  • Now place each activity at the appropriate level on the scale below.

Value For Money - Tasks which simply deliver on your job role or contract.

Adding Value - Tasks which elicit discretionary effort or raise engagement.

Creating Value - Tasks which focus beyond your current event horizon.


Before you rationalise why everything you do should be in the uppermost section, let’s be realistic. 70% of your job is doing your job, so its absolutely fine to have a lot of stuff in the lower quadrant. About 20% of what you do should be targeted at Adding Value and raising engagement of yourself or others, and then a final 10% of your effort should be focussed on thinking beyond the horizon. Anything above that will be welcomed with open arms but its good to start with your feet on the floor.

Once you’re happy with your selections, then go and grab a friend or mentor and ask them to critically review your selections and see if there is any extra value to be gained from not necessarily the ‘what’ you do, but in the ‘How’ you do it.