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№ 10

The business of busyness

Reading time 4 minutes read
A read on the strange cult around seeming busy, confusing meetings with working and my newly found love for white space in my calendar.

About 2 months in into my first job as Managing Director - I was still kind of overwhelmed by it all, having jumped into very cold water and figuring out what was expected from me, by myself and by my colleagues, I ran into an extended colleague in a meeting. He said to me: "oh, wow, you look relaxed. Aren’t you a MD now?" (= Acronym for Managing Director; to all of you who haven’t fallen into the habit of shortening everything into weird abbreviations that make you feel like some secret cult but actually make you look like a fool.) It wasn’t a compliment or some acknowledgement. It was a brutal mixture of real surprise and strong irritation. Everything about his comment made it clear that he was questioning the credibility of my promotion, and that he thought I couldn’t be doing that great of a job based on my relaxed stat of mind. And that was the day where the belief was ingrained within me, that in order to be a real leader, you need to be super busy, super stressed out about things and also make sure that you look that way and everyone sees this. (Writing this now, I cannot but cringe. How idiotic to believe this even for a second and how idiotic to let some random ignorant man change the way I live my life. That was the last time I took advice like that.)

The true real estate of business: our calendars.

The sad thing was that my immediate surroundings completely supported this belief. Wherever I looked in leadership, people seemed to be busy with things, complaining about their tight schedule, deadlines (I mean have a look at the wording!), doing this weird thing, kind of complain-bragging about the amount of meetings they would have. And then to top it all off: the the calendars - the true real estate in business. If you think finding an apartment in a big city is a nightmare, try securing even a tiny slot in the calendar of leadership. So this is what I started doing. Trying to get busy by looking busy, and the currency of looking busy are meetings. I started consuming meetings like popcorn. Squeezing even more in. Slots getting shorter and shorter, popping up all over the place. Me arriving late from a previous meeting to leave early for another one. Attending meetings while doing other things. White space was the enemy - an equivalent of wasted time and failing to do your job. Finally I was part of the complain-bragging crowd. 16 meetings a day. Fuck my life. High five. ✋
No need to say that this not only sounds ridiculous, but is ridiculous. And a sure-fire way to do a bad job in managing a company. Or teams. Or projects. Busyness instead of business. What happens if you run around like angry chickens is that you completely lose track of what truly matters and what really needs to be done.

You’re too busy to do your real job.

You’re wasting other’s time:

Every company has some dusted meeting rules they state: no meeting without agenda, clear moderation and timeboxes. And I have seen literally no company whatsoever that consistently practices them or where people hold themselves accountable to them. What I see instead: Joining meetings unprepared, arriving late, not being present, checking your smartphone in between, posing questions that have already been answered (while you were checking your smartphone). It’s incredibly disrespectful to your colleagues. Also by doing this, you not only actively choose not to contribute, but you make their experience even worse than if you hadn't attended at all. Not sure if you want to have this as the perceived outcome of your leadership.

You’re reacting instead of leading ahead:

Your job as a leader is to be ahead of things, anticipate developments, think strategically, decide what needs to be done. This requires space to think and make sense of what you experience. It also means taking a healthy distance to the daily operations in order to come up with ideas how to improve. If you’re so caught up in reacting to the present, you won’t be able to zoom out to see the icebergs of tomorrow. Also I think what this world doesn't need is people trying to do everything a tiny bit better, but people who find ways to do one or few things incredibly well. Those brilliant ideas usually don't happen when you're busy, but when you're in the shower, going for walks or staring at the sky.

You’re making people nervous:

The energy of being stressed spreads like a wildfire. You running around like an angry chicken will make your team run around like angry chicken as well. Panic breaks loose, wrong decisions are bound to be made, fire-fighting becomes necessary, resulting in more panic. No fun.

You’re becoming a miserable person who needs to spend a lot of money on eye-cream.

This is pretty self-explanatory. No-one likes to be around people who drain all energy and look like Dracula. There's a reason why Zombies belong in horror movies.


Becoming the antidote to busyness.

Fortunately, three things happened to me that got me out of the zombie zone. First, people I really like and whose opinion matter to me told me that they miss my personality who I was too busy to live fully. (Thanks for the intervention! Isn’t it simply the best to have honest people around😉 ) Second, my biggest motivation to do this job at all is to solve very complex problems and to create outstanding strategies that deliver unexpected results. Projects that require all of you. If you give those projects only 5% of you, you will see it directly in the results. They become average, they become mediocre, they become foreseeable. Just by looking at work I did and knowing that I could have done a better job with a little bit more time and attention, makes me super miserable. No way could I continue this way. So yes, my love for strategic excellence, beautiful slides and outcomes that make you proud, saved me from a potential burnout. Not gonna go into this irony ;)
Thirdly, have you ever had the luxury of people who are fully present when you are with them? It’s pure magic. They don’t check their smartphone, they fully listen and actually remember what you said, the interaction is so much more intense, you actually get addicted to spending time with them. I recently ran into one of those special persons again, and it was such a powerful reminder to say: I need to be exactly like this and nothing else. So I decided to become the antidote to busyness and started to take back control over my calendar. Let go of the meeting real estate and created a lot of white space recreational parks in it. (There’s an extra article on how l plan my week here - yes I’m pretty fussy about these things) In general, I started trying to adopt 6 behaviors+:

  1. Flipping the KPI
    It’s not the more meetings I have, the better job I’m doing, but the opposite. The more time I have for thinking, the more valuable I am to my company. So I keep min. 30% of my week totally free of meetings (50% are even better, but let’s stay realistic) - for deep work, thinking and the unexpected that happens every time. Preferably in the mornings, because that is my most creative time.

  2. Doing the unthinkable
    I decline invitations 😱 Very often. And haven’t received any hate mail. So I assume people are ok with it.

  3. No wasted time for reasons of being polite
    First question in every meeting: what’s my role here and what do people expect of me? I shut down meetings when there is no clear agenda or when critical people arrive unprepared. I walk out when I have the impression that I cannot contribute anything. People may react irritated at first, but at the end of the day, they benefit too.

  4. Desynchronize
    Come on, we already have a meme for this. With every meeting, I check if this really needs to be a meeting or if some part can be desynchronized or done in another way. In 75% of the cases, the answer is yes.

  5. You're not irreplaceable
    I try to prioritize on the things that really can or should be done by me (or that I enjoy doing so much that I can’t stand not doing it) and delegate or co-create the rest. (It’s astonishing to realize how few things actually lie in your responsibility only and how much stuff can be done by others as well, sometimes even better)

  6. Never do things in parallel.
    (Like checking mails in a meeting, or zoning out of a boring presentation to solve some strategy question you have on your mind) This is the hardest one for me, because it’s just so tempting and at the same time, doing it has an incredibly negative impact on how I feel at the end of the day. When I multitask, I feel I have lived through multiple days within the span of one (which makes sense if you think about it). Our brains are just not meant to spend several days in one. We need to leave this shit for artificial intelligence.

I know, most of this sounds pretty obvious but do you see anyone doing it? Recent reminder: Last week I was asked to do a written interview with an industry journal. One question was: “How do you relax and wind down from your 60h week?”
You know what my answer will be.

Nice Try Though.

+Don’t even get the impression that I manage to do these successfully every day. It’s my ambition, still learning.✌🏻

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