Jeffosophy: a collection of possibly useful things I have learned over the years.



Two employees - one hard at work the other chatting at coffee corner 

Being Super Busy Is Impressive But Not Effective

Note: a version of this article originally appeared in and is oriented more towards business managers. Nevertheless, I believe it is useful to everyone and, if you are too busy to read it, then it is definitely for you.

Imagine you are the manager of a division in a large company. In your team of a dozen people are two women, Jane and Wendy, who have similar job responsibilities and get a similar amount of work done every day.

Jane is one of the first to arrive every morning and one of the last to leave at the end of the day. She brings a thermos of coffee to keep her going and a boxed lunch which she usually eats at her desk while working. She never takes all of her vacation days and even when she does take a day off, she checks email regularly and takes calls at any time.

Wendy arrives at the office at nine and says hello to everyone. She often chats with people on her way to her desk which she seldom reaches before 9:30. She takes periodic coffee breaks and hangs around the machine chatting with colleagues. She typically takes lunch in the canteen or goes out with friends. If the weather is nice, she eats outside and may even go for a walk afterwards. By five in the afternoon, she is almost inevitably turning off her computer and making to leave. She takes her full allotment of vacation days and rarely, if ever, checks her email when she is away from the office.

Who impresses you more, Jane or Wendy?

The average manager is much more impressed with busy Jane. She is most likely to be promoted and least likely to be tossed out the window during lay-offs. Wendy, on the other hand, appears lazy. She spends far less time at the office and even when she is at the office she has the unimpressive habit of not looking busy.

New employees are likely to be shown busy Jane as the model employee and told to emulate her if they wish to succeed in the company. They are advised not to behave like lazy Wendy.

Messed Up Priorities

This attitude is stupid.

Remember, the first thing I shared with you is that both Jane and Wendy have similar responsibilities and get a similar amount of work done each day. However, once you take into account coffee breaks, long lunch breaks and chatting with colleagues, Wendy completes the same work in half the time it takes Jane. In other words, Wendy is far more efficient and productive than Jane. We should admire Wendy and learn from her efficiency. But we don't, we praise the inefficient workaholic.

And that's not all, lazy Wendy outdoes busy Jane in other important ways. When Wendy chats with colleagues during long coffee breaks or when coming to the office in the morning, she is also reinforcing her network of connections within the company as well as learning what is happening in other divisions. So, she's more knowledgeable about her employer and better connected than Jane.

Down Time Is Important

Moreover, by spending less time at the office, taking longer holidays and turning off work during holidays, Wendy is clearing her head, recharging her batteries and improving herself. As a result, she is a better, more alert and brighter person at work than Jane.

Wendy clearly has a life outside of the office. Perhaps she has a family. Perhaps she has a group of friends she likes to hang out with. Perhaps she has a hobby. Perhaps she likes being alone and reading a lot. Most likely, she does a few of these things. Jane almost certainly has very little going on outside of work. She is surely too tired and has too little time at the end of the day to have a life. If she has a family, she is either neglecting them or her sleep. None of this is good for her health or the quality of her work.

Impressed By Busyness

Why is this? Why are we impressed with the workaholic but see the efficient enjoyer of life as lazy − even when the latter produces the same results as the former?

It is because we humans tend to be far more impressed by the appearance of hard work than we are by results, even if we say the opposite. Most blogs on succeeding at work suggest being busy in various ways: arrive early, leave late, volunteer for tasks, ruin your life for the company. Okay, maybe they don't explicitly say that last thing, but it is implied.

We Should Be Impressed By Efficiency and Fun

In fact, managers should promote Wendy and tell Jane to get a life. New colleagues should be encouraged to follow Wendy's example and learn her shortcuts that enable her to take half as much time to do tasks as Jane requires.

Employees should be encouraged to take all their vacation days and those who do not should be put in stocks in the lobby of the building to set an example for other wannabe workaholics who believe working themselves to death is a good thing to do.

People who find short cuts in processes should be praised. Those who find ways to avoid administrative nonsense should be made heroes. People who leave on time to spend time with lovers, family, friends or doing something they enjoy alone should be encouraged to do so. People who want to stay late every day should be thrown out at quitting time.

People on vacation should be told not to reply to work emails or take business calls while away. Those who do should be slapped in the face with a dead fish during the first staff meeting after their return; in order to demonstrate the disdain with which management holds inefficient over-workers.

Do this and soon your company will be full of happy people with great work-life balance, who bring lots of external thinking to the company and who are well connected with each other. The company will be just as productive as ones filled with stressed out workaholics who last took a vacation in 2007 and ten times as innovative because people will have time and inspiration to be creative.

And once you have done this, give me a call. I think I'd like to work for you, please.

After the Pandemic Note

This article was originally written some years ago. Since then we have had a global pandemic which has changed the way we work. In particular, a lot of people like Jane and Wendy work from home at least few days a week. This has led to a proliferation of tools that supposedly monitor productivity of home workers --  but are all too likely to measure busyness instead. Unfortunately, such tools may well drive Wendy to leave her employer for a more trusting organisation. The result is likely to be a company full of Janes working hard, being inefficient and burning out while more trusting employers will benefit from lots of Wendys fleeing their over-monitoring employers.


Bonus Trivia

Interesting fact: the word "business" is derived from the old English "bisignis", which means "anxiety". In the middle ages, it became "busyness" which implied a "state of being busy". It was only in the 18th century, that the words "busyness" and "business" took on two separate meanings and the word, "business" acquired the meaning we know today. Source: Oxford English Dictionary







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