Does Being Busy Mean We’re Disorganised?

April 27, 2016 Katharina Lochner

image panic deadlines

 Turn Being Busy to Being Productive

Are you feeling busy? Very busy? And is it the others who keep you so busy? You would get so many more things done if only they did not keep imposing tasks on you? What if I tell you that busyness is often – SELF-IMPOSED! Think about this for a moment. It is not the others who keep you busy, it is yourself.

This is what Francesca Gino from Harvard Business School and Bradley Staats from Kenan-Flagler Business School argue in their article in Harvard Business Review. The reason for our tendency to keep ourselves busy, according to science, lies in our brain: on the one hand we do not like to be idle, and on the other, particularly when facing problems or ambiguous situations, we prefer to do some kind of action over doing nothing, even if the former is counterproductive. Consequently, in a study the authors found that people feel more productive when actively doing something than when planning, particularly when under time pressure.

Now if busyness is self-imposed there must be something that we can do in order to become more productive – so in order to be less busy, but more productive? Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats suggest that taking time to reflect can help. In a study they divided employees in a tech-support call centre into two groups: one that took, at the end of the day, 15 minutes to reflect on the lessons they had learned during the day, and the other that kept working until the end of the day. The result was that after one month the group that had reflected at the end of the day was almost 23% more productive than the group that hadn’t.

One might think that this applies only to simple jobs, but no – the authors cite another study by Oriana Bendiera from London School of Economics and Political Science, Andrea Prat from Columbia University, and Raffaella Sadun from Harvard Business School. They looked at how managers allocated their time and how this affected productivity. One of their results was that those managers who

  • planned in advance (as opposed to those who did not)
  • met with several people from different functions at the same time (as opposed those who met other in one-on-one settings)
  • mostly met with their direct reports (as opposed to outsiders)

were more productive than those who had the opposite management style.

What does this mean for us? Even when there is a lot to do, we should take our time to plan. This also includes planning whom to delegate tasks to, which alone requires some planning. When conducting meetings it makes sense to involve several people at a time, ideally all those that are involved in the same kind of project. So in order to be more productive, try to be less busy, but take your time to plan well!

References:
Gino, F. & Staats, B. (2015). The Remedy for Unproductive Busyness [online]. URL: [27.04.2016].
Sadun, R (2013). Managing Firms in an Emerging Economy: Evidence from the Time Use of Indian CEOs. Working Paper, 2013.

About the Author

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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