The Most Important Thing: Don’t Just DO Work, Learn How to Deal With It

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Aug 27, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Busy is a choice.

Through my work, I talk to many people (executives, mid-level managers, and individuals) at many different companies, and the one issue that seems epidemic is that people are all too busy.

I’ve done webinars on Negotiating Your Workload, and Ruthless Priorities & Guilt to help people take more control over their time, but today I want to talk about how to change your mindset around how you choose to use your time.

It’s important to remember that we are each the source of our own time. Our time is completely defined by what we say “yes” to, and what we say “no” to.

I see three (3) underlying issues that cause people to make themselves too busy.

1. Misreading expectations from above

It’s interesting to me that when I talk to executives in companies, they never ask me to help them get people to work longer hours.

They DO often ask me to help them to get their people to think and work more strategically.

It’s annoying to top executives when people complain about being over-worked, yet make no suggestions of their own for how to work differently.

The executives don’t need you to be busier; they need you to help them make decisions about what is most important.

When your boss assigns you a task, the worst thing you can do is to just start doing it.

What you first need to do is to clarify the expectations, the scope, the audience, and the expected time frame that the executive wants you to invest in completing this task. Then you need to go back and gauge the importance of this task against all the other things you have been asked to do.

Then you can go back to your boss and say, “Here is my recommendationif I understand the business priorities correctly, it’s more important for me to first finish these other two things, then I will start on this new thing. Do you agree?”

Not just delegating, but thinking about the work

I can tell you as a busy, C-level executive myself, the high performers were the people who thoughtfully assessed their workload, and then came back to me with a do-able recommendation.

The low performers were the ones who just said yes to everything and then failed to get it all done, or died trying. That does not help.

You need to recognize that your manager is not just delegating the work — but the thinking about the work.

It’s impossible for your boss to do the high quality thinking about all the work they assign to everyone that reports to them. They need each person to be smartly making decisions and judgements and recommending the way forward.

That’s part of your job.

2. Social/competitive pressure

I see many environments where there is just a culture or an expectation that everyone works really long hours.

People are loathe to go home on time because they see this as a high risk move. They work long hours to create this image of a highly committed, competitive, top performer who comes in early and is the last one to leave.

I have hired many executives in my career and never once was the discussion of the interview team about “who works the longest hours?” Not once.

In many environments the executives have nothing to do with this arms war of who can work the latest. In fact they ask for my help to try to break this habit, because they don’t want their team burning out.

Throughout my career, I never was the one to work the longest hours. I didn’t work weekends. I needed rest.

Then when I got back to work, I got bigger, better stuff done. I got promoted because I could show more compelling results.

Of course there are deadlines, launches, or releases, that will have you working 24×7 for awhile. We all need to do this sometimes. But if you find yourself equating value or status with long hours, you are not doing the math the same way hiring executives do it.

They want to see what you have achieved. They want to see how you have created efficiencies, so people don’t have to work so long and hard to accomplish the same thing. They want to see how you have created leverage by building strong teams, and working with and through others.

3. Ego

Another reason I see that people keep themselves too busy is that it makes them feel important. They think: “I am so busy because I am the only one who can do these things and that makes me important.

Again, this is NOT how executives do the counting.

One time when I had my first executive role, I was totally over-busy. It was a turn-around situation and my schedule was booked solid every single day from 7 am to 7 pm, and people were upset with me that I was not willing to have 5 am phone calls or dinner meetings every night.

I was working with an executive coach at the time telling her that I was feeling out of control and very tired, and that I needed time to think. She said, “then schedule it.” I said, “I can’t, there are too many people who need to have meetings with me.

She then said to me, “Patty, you are not THAT important.”

It was just the thing I needed to hear!

From that moment, I started carving out two hour per week for myself to think and work on my strategic planning. I hid from the world from those two hours, and it really allowed me to make the move from busy to important.

The work I was able to get done, and the strategic thinking I was able to do during those two hours per week, helped me to actually be even less busy over time. Doing this gave me the chance to step back, assess, combine, align, delete, delegate… instead of just trying to do everything.

The most important thing you can do

It’s interesting to note that when I look on my Kindle for the most popular highlights and marks in my book RISE, the most highlighted phrase by readers all over the world is:

Figure out a way to DEAL WITH all the work vs. DO all the work and you’ll be on the right track.”

Giving yourself time to think and scheduling it is the single most important thing you can do in your quest to move from busy to important.

How you invest your time is your choice. You may need to negotation with your boss or your family to carve out time that you need, but you do need it, and it’s your choice and your responsibility to do it.

And your company is not waiting for you to work more hours. They are waiting for you to add more value.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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