Busy is not a badge of honor

Being busy isn't the same as doing meaningful work. Brian de Haaff explains how to do less of the former and more of the latter

Busy is not a badge of honor

by Brian de Haaff

The person in the grocery store tapping out messages between two cell phones at once. The jogger whose eyes keep darting to the notifications blipping on their smartwatch. And the dinner party conversation that turns into a one-upping competition over who has less free time. Calendars double-booked! Overwhelmed at work! 

I get it – we’re all busy. I often tell people who ask for some of my time that I am, unfortunately, oversubscribed. 

But is all this activity leading to anything real? Are we actually doing anything meaningful? 

There is a difference between busy work and meaningful work. As Thomas Edison once wisely put it, “Seeming to do is not doing.” You need to check in with yourself and see which one you’re giving your time to – that is, unless you want to claim an overinflated sense of importance as an achievement. 

Let me explain. Research from Columbia Business School shows that Americans in particular perceive busy-ness as a status symbol. The key word here is ‘perceive.’ That’s because the findings have everything to do with the image of being busy and nothing to do with the results. 

Busy is not a badge of honour. It only leads to greatness if you are working for a purpose and making progress towards goals that serve it. 

Of course, projecting the appearance of being out of time might be coming from a place of self-preservation rather than self-aggrandizement. It may be that people are afraid of not looking busy. In the absence of solid direction, they scramble to fill the day with tasks and meetings: “What would happen if people actually knew how little I have to do? Or worse, if they knew how little I have to do and how little I actually accomplish?” 

There’s only so much time – it’s a precious resource, and we can’t buy more of it. So it would behoove us all to use our time as efficiently as possible, giving it to what matters most. This is especially important if you are a leader, in title or in action, at your company. However, this concept applies to all of us, regardless of our specific profession or title. 

Here’s what I have found is essential to create an environment for doing meaningful work each day: 

Show purpose 
Busy work happens when people don’t have clear goals. Eliminate the waste by giving work purpose. Create a clear visualization of the goal and plan – one that’s accessible to everyone – and meet regularly to discuss how you’re progressing against your goals. This should be an active document that is shown and referred to often, not something that’s seen once at a kick-off meeting and quickly forgotten. 

Prioritize value 
Check in often. Are there tasks that are taking too much time (and not adding much value)? Is meaningful work getting pushed aside in favor of easy to-dos with no impact? Prioritize the team’s workflow so they are focused on what will deliver the most value. And don’t be afraid to set aggressive deadlines for that work. Keep everyone zeroed in on meaningful achievement. 

Create transparency 
One way we do this at Aha! is by having teammates document their “progress, planned and problems” each week. Not only does it keep people accountable for what they’re working on, but it also provides total transparency. By adopting this in your own organization, you can create an environment where people really are busy doing meaningful work, not just cultivating perception. 

Let go 
Sometimes the need to be busy stems from a need for control: Do all the work (and get all the credit). But remember that being a leader is not grandeur – it’s about helping others grow. Delegate when you can and give people meaningful opportunities that will grow their responsibilities and skills. 

If you want to be a great leader, you need to create an environment that is buzzing with purpose. When you fall back on ‘busy’ as your go-to status, it signals to your team that they should do the same – and, worse yet, that you’re too busy to guide and provide input into their work. Distracted bosses are some of the most frustrating ones to work with. 

So take steps to reject busy-ness as badge of honour. Choose real purpose instead, and it will be clear where to invest your time. 

Brian de Haaff is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world's #1 product roadmap and marketing planning software — and the author of  Lovability. His two previous companies were acquired by well-known public corporations. De Haaff writes and speaks about product and company growth and the adventure of living a meaningful life. For more information, visit aha.io.