Busyness

Busyness is not business . . . but it works

A lighthearted look at our obsession with busyness from our competitive strategy analyst Richard Telofski.

 

Busy is as busy does.

You're in business. I'm in business.

And you're busy. I'm busy, as well. We're all busy. How do I know? Just ask someone in business the question, "Do you have some time for blah, blah, blah?" and what is the answer you will likely receive?

"Sorry, I'm busy."

You know that will be the response even before you pose your question. And why do you know that?

Because we're all busy. It's like knowing that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.

I hear it and read about it a lot. People constantly tell each other that they're busy, especially in business.

In business, unless you're busy, even if that attribute is self-declared, you don't have value. And in business if you don't have value . . . well, you know what's likely to happen. Lack of promotion, demotion, a mediocre raise in salary, no raise in salary, or, at the worst, the dreaded "pink slip," and I'm not referring to a piece of exotic merchandise found at Victoria's Secret.

No, in business we must be busy. We must have value and that value must be made known to others. We must demonstrate that value through our jobs, which of course is not always easy. So when the demonstrative method isn't effective, we must move to the declarative method. We have the option of declaring ourselves as busy. Who's going to dispute that? Think about it.

If someone does choose to dispute our claim that we are busy in business, well then they run the risk of being viewed as not being busy themselves. If the disputer is viewed as having enough time to dispute whether or not someone else is not busy, then you know what might happen. That disputer runs the risk of receiving a pink slip without the fun of a trip to Victoria's Secret, especially given the state of our current economy. The declarative method seems to be, therefore, a self-sustaining process.

So, we're all busy, if by no other method than our own declaration of such. We must do this. It is a matter of survival in our modern economy. To declare ourselves as anything else is simply business career suicide.

Not only do claims of busyness help preserve our business careers, but those claims perform double-duty by providing our egos with a sense of self-worth. If we're busy at work, and we and others know it, particularly with our calendars so full that our hard disks overheat in an effort to keep up with our relentless ego-building, then we feel like we have a purpose. (The achievement of purpose is paramount. We can always acquire more disk space.)

Work = Purpose. Purpose = Work. Certainly these are concepts that hark back to the Protestant work ethicand ones that supported the beginnings of our modern economy. Yet, when I think about these equations and that work ethic I'm struck by an irony, one pointed out by writer Tim Kreider in his essay on busyness. The Puritans created the notion that work would earn your way into heaven, yet the Book of Genesis makes it quite clear that because Eve was non-compliant, the need to work was rendered as a punishment upon humankind and not as a route to a reward.

So, the idea of punishment notwithstanding, we're busy, and despite the fact that some folks may look at work as a punishment, busyness makes us feel better.

But I'm not quite sure what it is that we're busy doing in business all day.

Maybe we've simply become victims of the Parkinson Principle, which is represented by that adage that goes something like: "Work expands to fill the time available for its completion." A lot of people think that this saying is the Peter Principle. But Peter's principle is something different than Parkinson's. Perhaps the confusion between the two principles is caused by a lack of time to understand the difference between them, a lack of time caused by busyness in business.

No matter what causes the confusion between the two principle labels, the fact remains that as business technology improves, the people who are keeping busy in business are made more productive. We've seen this happen at several points in business history. And as productivity increases, as workers produce more in the same period of time, and as the length of the work week is held constant, then the amount of "unbusy" time increases. So to prevent business career suicide and to keep the ego fed, those now more productive workers expand their work to fill the time available for its completion and thus fall victim to Parkinson's principle. They fill their "unbusy" time with work and convert the potentially career-lethal and ego-deflating commodity of slack time into busy time.

Busyness therefore then gets converted into business. Much of the time no one really even notices the transition. But careers are saved and egos are fed. Everyone goes home reasonably happy.

But busyness is not business. Most of us realize that, even though we abet the confusion between the two on a daily basis. The conversion of busyness into business is a strange process, yet somehow it manages to make the world go around, to keep job creation going, to keep food on the table, and to keep psyches from splitting.

Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky. And perhaps we should consider all this when someone next asks us, "Are you busy?"