Mind Your Busyness

How to overcome our overuse of the busyness excuse KELLY HENNIGAN

By the time you read this article, my grandmother will be a centenarian—a person who lives to or beyond 100 years of age. According to the 2010 U.S. Census Special Report on Centenarians, this feat has been achieved by only .017 percent of people in the United States! Worldwide, there are estimated to be 450,000 centenarians,1 and more than 80 percent of that group is comprised of females. Out of this cohort of centenarians, it is probable that 450 individuals (1 in every 1,000) will reach the status of “supercentenarians”—living to or beyond 110 years of age. Even rarer is living to age 115, as there are only 46 verified cases in recorded history of individuals indisputably reaching this mature age.2

Although the following quotation is attributed to Dr. Seuss, my grandmother very well might have said the same to me during a recent conversation reflecting on her life: “How did it get so late so soon? It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn.”

Most of us likely have had these conversations—perhaps not with a centenarian, but with a colleague—about a weekend that passed by too quickly or that the upcoming year-end will be a rush to the finish line between work and personal obligations. Whether we lead a large team, a small group or are focused on leading ourselves, we all have fallen into what Tim Kreider calls “The Busy Trap” in his synonymous 2012 New York Times article. “In the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ … And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’”

For many business professionals, being busy has evolved into more than a response or a temporary state of being, but rather a lifestyle. The habitual routine of falling into the “busy trap” can result in isolation on a personal level due to becoming more and more self-absorbed with busyness. This promulgates the continued excuse of busyness, which perpetuates feelings of remoteness and inaccessibility. As many individuals in senior management positions already experience “leadership loneliness,” the busyness factor further exacerbates these existing emotions of isolation. The February 2012 Harvard Business Review featured a story that cited nearly 70 percent of first-time CEOs believe their feelings of isolation at the top negatively affected their performance. However, CEOs are not the only ones who feel these emotions—managers and others in leadership positions within volunteer organizations feel similarly—which affects decision-making and overall organizational culture. As Socrates once said, “Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”

But, in reality, are we really as busy as we think we are? How can we avoid falling into the “busy trap”? The intent of this article is to explore some of the common myths related to the topic of busyness and our overuse of the “busyness excuse.” Additionally, it provides some practical guidance on how to know—and perhaps more importantly, mind—your busyness.

Myth #1: A Common Misconception: Busyness = Productivity

“Being busy does not always mean real work. … Seeming to do is not doing.”
—Thomas Edison, inventor

Consider the term “busy” versus “productive.” Busyness is often self-imposed and related to work assignments, volunteer activities, and other social or personal commitments that we have put upon ourselves. Even children fall into the “busy trap,” participating in academic, sports-related, arts-based or other extracurricular activities in their spare time.

For some, it is reassuring to have this constant busyness, as it is a comfort and security blanket. Certainly being in demand all the time equates to a full and meaningful life! Business leaders who have worked hard to achieve aspirational roles may (incorrectly) assume that the busyness goes along with the position. In actuality, this is not the case: Busyness is affecting the ability to truly live and thrive—both professionally and personally. As author Todd Stocker comments, “I wanted to figure out why I was so busy, but I couldn’t find the time to do it.” To manage the ever-present busyness and strive toward greater productivity, consider:

  • Creating time buffers to avoid the hectic feeling of being rushed.
  • Rebalancing priority items while creating a “capture list” of items not yet prioritized.
  • Striving for simplicity.

Prioritizing can be challenging for many of us. Author Stephen Covey states, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” So much competes for our time, and we must learn to strike the perfect balance. Some tactics that help with managing priorities include:

  • Pretend you have less time than you actually have. This will force you to focus in on what truly matters.
  • Use technology to your advantage. Research what technology works best for you. For example, voice recognition techniques or time management/productivity apps could help deal with competing priorities.
  • Do nothing! Rather than tackling the work effort yourself, consider delegating to others in your department or across disciplines. (See the “Do Nothing!” sidebar.)

We all live in a very complex and fast-paced world, where simplicity is not always evident. Elaine St. James, author of the book Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things that Really Matter, states: “There are often many things we feel we should do that, in fact, we don’t really have to do. Getting to the point where we can tell the difference is a major milestone in the simplification process.”


Do Nothing!,a book that promotes a synonymous leadership approach, was written by J. Keith Murnighan, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. The book focuses on typical leaders—those who are hardworking, conscientious and have the natural reaction to want to step up to do more. The author’s advice to his audience: Stop working and start leading! …

St. James started down her path to simplifying via decluttering. While perhaps easier said than done, decluttering involves identifying what is essential and eliminating the unnecessary. At work, this includes:

  • Decluttering desks and computer desktops. Organization can be mentally uplifting and motivating.
  • Decluttering calendars. Decline meetings for which you are an optional attendee. Let go of the obligatory feeling that every phone call or email requires an instant response.
  • Learning how to just say no—to extra meetings or requests—without compromising your professional reputation.
  • Blocking off time on your calendar dedicated to getting actual work accomplished.

Employing these tools to manage busyness versus productivity, as well as prioritizing and simplifying, will enable you to reclaim some time. What you end up doing with the newfound time is up to you!

Myth #2: The Illusion of Productivity: Technology and Multitasking

“Technology can be our best friend, and technology can also be the biggest party pooper of our lives. It interrupts our own story, interrupts our ability to have a thought or a daydream, to imagine something wonderful, because we’re too busy bridging the walk from the cafeteria back to the office on the cell phone.”
—Steven Spielberg, filmmaker

Both the access to technology and the ease of multitasking have given us a crutch to allow us to think we are busier, more important and more productive than we actually are. Whether we are a C-suite executive, a manager of a small team, or navigating ourselves through work and life, our phones are continuously buzzing with reminders and notifications. We have the ability to seamlessly bounce among various forms of media via our smartphones and the internet, and are inundated by information 24/7.

This reliance on technology is not only a distraction, but an addiction. Consider the following results related to mobile device owners and their technology habits from the Google report “Micro-Moments.”

  • On average, people check their phones 150 times a day and spend 177 minutes using them.
  • 87 percent always have their smartphones at their side, day and night.
  • 68 percent check their phones within 15 minutes of waking up.
  • 91 percent turn to their phones for ideas in the middle of a task.
  • 82 percent consult their phones during shopping in a physical location.

Technology fatigue exists—a February 2016 Harris Poll found that 37 percent of adults say it’s simply unrealistic to unplug for more than a few hours at a time. As such, technology can be a continuous distraction, causing us to become unfocused and scattered in different directions. We likely have all been in meetings where we inconspicuously break away from the agenda content to glance down at our phones and subsequently send off a brief reply to an email or a quick text response. However, when we do glance back up and rejoin the meeting, we are participating at less than 100 percent of our previous ability. Based on a University of California, Irvine, study, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to resume doing a task at its original “pre-distraction” capacity.

Stronger Strengths

Leaders today need to foster their own strengths, as well as the strengths of their teams. Contrary to popular belief, strengths are not necessarily what a person excels at! While strengths may be synonymous with being exceptional at a particular task, individuals must also feel passionate and, ultimately, empowered by their strengths …

If we are able to take the time to focus and get away from the technological distractions, we can then ultimately strive toward more meaningful work and a resulting quality work product. Instead of falling back on the virtual relationships maintained via instant messaging and emailing, the avoidance of technology allows us to spend more time face-to-face or holding conversations over the phone with business colleagues, building professional networking relationships.

Similarly, multitasking—especially due to technology—has become a necessity for many and gives us the illusion of productivity. As previously noted, multitaskers are actually less productive and more prone to boredom because they are less emotionally invested in what they are doing. According to MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller, the constant change of focus actually makes our brains less functional.

In order to rise above the busyness to achieve ultimate productivity, it is essential to take an occasional break from technology and multitasking. This can be most easily achieved by just being mindful of our technology habits. Each day, consider devoting several blocks of 20 uninterrupted minutes to accomplishing a specific task without multitasking or being distracted by technology. In a typical 16 waking-hour day, there are 48 of these 20-minute blocks to take advantage of! In doing so, you will reach a more productive state and also prime your now focused mindset for creativity and innovation.

Myth #3: The Busyness Excuse

“Never be so busy as not to think of others.”
—Mother Teresa, missionary

Despite what I have written, there are times when we are truly busy and all of our work and personal obligations collide to create the perfect storm of busyness. We all are guilty of overusing the “I’m too busy” line. To shield against professional and personal reputational damage, we may want to reflect on the validity of this go-to excuse and consider our audience before saying, “I’m too busy.”

  • Co-worker. Assuming you are doing well at work, co-workers will naturally come to you for assistance. In these situations, rather than say, “I’m too busy,” respond with a time frame and a solution. For example, “I have the executive committee presentation due on Tuesday afternoon, so let’s plan to meet about your new request on Wednesday morning.”
  • Manager. If your manager is putting demands on your time, rather than the response of “I’m too busy,” use the opportunity to discuss your workload, priorities and future projects on the horizon. In some cases, your manager may be approaching you for additional work based on your skill set and strengths in being able to get the job done. (See the “Stronger Strengths” sidebar.)
  • Client. If a client is making demands on your time, you need to consider an appropriate way to respond—the “I’m too busy” excuse is going to damage the business relationship. However, you do need to set the tone to manage the client’s expectations. For example, “I am currently working on our existing engagement related to the system conversion, but I can refer your new request to another colleague that has some capacity until I free up.” That enables the client to adjust your priorities if necessary, or utilize another resource to get the work done.
  • Family and friends. When it comes to our personal lives, it can be even easier to overuse the “busyness” excuse. In order to maintain friendships, consider a more thoughtful response. For example, “My schedule is limited right now, but how about we each skip the gym one day this week and meet up for tennis?” If we perpetually avoid those close to us, family and friends may end up not including us on future invitations, as they will revert to the “we knew you were busy and didn’t want to bother you” justification.

These example responses demonstrate that the deliverer is thinking of others and wants to uphold a mutual rapport. Oftentimes, those who are on the receiving end of an “I’m too busy” line may realize where they actually fall on the priority list, which is off-putting. When the deliverer articulates a time frame and a resolution instead of responding with the busyness excuse, damage to the relationship is avoided, as the recipient feels considered and valuable to the partnership.


By taking time for self-observations and reflection, consider how your professional and personal lives exemplify any of the three myths—that busyness equates to productivity, the illusion of productivity brought on by technology and multitasking, and the overuse of the busyness excuse. To the extent that you have fallen into the “busy trap,” take necessary action to extract yourself from it.

  • Weigh the busyness versus productivity of your daily activities, and employ prioritization and simplification techniques to manage your time.
  • Contemplate any illusions associated with your productivity. Are interruptions from technology and your level of multitasking actually detrimental and stifling your ability to focus and fully participate?
  • Reflect on your professional and personal relationships and the busyness excuse.

With any luck, I will follow in my grandmother’s footsteps and one day reach centenarian status. While that seems incomprehensible at this stage in my life, it could very well become a reality many decades from now. At that time, I hope to look back upon the milestones and events that transpired over the years, rather than a life consumed by busyness. As Ferris Bueller remarked in the memorable 1986 film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

Related Links
2010 U.S. Census Special Report on Centenarians
Leadership Loneliness
Google Micro-Moments Report
Harris Poll on Unplugging
University of California Study on Distraction

Kelly Hennigan, FSA, CFA, was the 2015–2016 chairperson of the Leadership & Development Section Council.