I’m Too Busy to Do What’s Most Important

Busy—rather than focused—is thematic among the leaders and teams we coach at Heidrick, and it has only accelerated during the pandemic. It tends to swallow up priorities, calendars, devices, and ways of collaborating ... and finally becomes your organizational norm. 

Single, double, or triple-booked back-to-back meetings make up for most leaders just another work day. “I do my actual work after my meeting day. That’s just the way it is.” 

Busy’s costs are sky high, and to what benefit?

After all, if you have to slog through all of your busy time hoping that you can then focus on what’s most important “later,” maybe at the end of the day, or on another day, then how can you as a leader or team be at your best on any given day? 

David Gergen points out in Hearts Touched With Fire (2022: Simon & Schuster), “Indeed, leadership at its best is service to others.” If those we serve and hold most important—our teams, employees, customers, investors, communities, etc.—were to get a good look at our calendars, would they give us an A+ for spending most of our highest quality time on what's most important to them?

As the busy culture begins to dominate, it’s human nature to go with the flow and start thinking empty space on calendars means something is wrong. 

My colleague Adam Howe, who masterfully helps organizations globally remove the clutter of complexity, points out, “When I teach on simplicity, I talk of the paradox of busyness: it's become a medal of honor of our time that we are all proud of, but like a cholesterol in the blood, it creates an unseen 'tax' on organization and leader productivity.”

If this sounds all too familiar here are three practices to help begin to divest yourself and/or your team of the busy:

1. Be clear and tenacious about your top three priorities

What are your big three priorities right now, that align with your organization’s top priorities?

Once clear on those, consider the pull toward constant meetings and task-switching away from them—toggling between back-to-backs, IMs, text messages, emails, calls, and other things. This is not only a disrupted way to operate, but it’s also a zero sum game. That is, do more of those distractions, and you do less of your big three priorities.   

Try this: Record and stick on your screen your top three priorities ... the big ones, right now. Then, when considering your day ahead, and each task switch, should it be “switch or stick” given those priorities, when temptation calls?  Extra credit: share those priorities with others on your team to give them a filter for understanding when you may not attend their event or meeting, respond to a message you are cc;ed on, offer an opinon when you are one of 12 in the "To:" box, or say “yes,” “no thank you,” and “not now.”

2. Take a page from Marie Kondo: declutter

As Howe also points out, “You can declutter a calendar (a team, or even an organization) in the same way you can a closet.” 

First, imagine all your (or your team’s) commitments, meetings, initiatives, and workstreams accumulated are like items in your “busy closet.” Carefully open the door to that closet and let all your items tumble out. Now, pick them up one by one and consider their importance, relevance to your big three priorities, and what to do about each one.

Take a critical look at your (or your team’s) calendar two months back and one month ahead. Make a list of everything you’re spending time on, and add to that your latest “to do list(s)” and feather in anything you’ve been putting off, but not writing down. Look at slack/IM or email too to make sure you’re not missing anything. Now make one big list of what’s got you busy.

Next, some of my clients make a spreadsheet, but use your favorite tool: categorize each item on the list – what priority does each item go with? How does it serve those you serve as a leader or team? What is its level of relevance to that priority (high/low/not) and what to do with it, among the following choices (and note accordingly):

  • Do it … High relevance to a big three priority that you need to do yourself, and needs to be done now
  • Delegate it … High relevance to a high priority, not needed or appropriate to be done by you to be done well enough (note I said “well enough” and not “as perfectly as you would do it if you had plenty of spare time,”) and delegate it with plenty of context to the most appropriate person or team
  • Defer it … High relevance to a high priority, not needed to be done short term
  • Discard it … you’re hanging on to it for a weak or no reason. Not relevant enough to keep, so appreciate it and let it go

3. Create white space on your calendar—it’s not simply nice to have, it’s urgent

Everyone thoughtful about life and time management will tell you to create white space on your calendar. We know we need to do it, but we don’t, and when we do, we often give it away. After all X or Y is more important than sitting there staring out the window, right?  And anyway “busy means adding value.” Not so much. We’re human and we need thinking and reflection time, time to not think, and peaceful distractions to allow the bigger computers in the back of our minds to work away on a problem that our conscious mind is too overwrought to solve. 

Mental chatter—"monkey mind"—is the enemy of focus, and to clear the clutter, we need quiet time to reset.

It’s urgent: block off several solid chunks of time every week and don’t trade them off. If you can’t do it, you’re doing too much—in which case, refer to “Clean out your busy closet,” above.

If "I'm too busy to do what's most important" is a t-shirt we need to have made for you or your team, then consider the practices outlined here. They are based on work with leaders and teams, and we know they work.

As Shakespeare’s Henry V going into battle declares, “All things be ready if our minds be so.” Even if you’re simply battling busy, a ready mind requires clarity that can only come from having some extra mental, emotional, and actual capacity. If you agree, then these three practices will help you find a more peaceful and capable version of yourself and your team.