When Busy is Bad

Have you noticed that when you ask someone how they are, they often respond with one word: “Busy.” Apparently, busy is their state of being: not healthy or sick, happy or sad,  excited or anxious. Yet the word busy is fundamentally neutral and doesn’t tell the whole story about one’s current state. After all, one can busy and happy about it (especially when compared to the alternative of under-employment) or one can be frustrated by it. And yet we persist in describing ourselves as busy.

Clearly, the word “busy” is meant to convey a wealth of meaning. But what meaning? In some circles, it means that one is fully engaged. For a lawyer, it can mean full utilization. Perhaps it even suggests a high level of productivity. But that would be misleading. As we have been learning in the legal industry, a high level of input (our effort is no more than an input), does not necessarily ensure a high level of output or, more importantly, a good outcome. And it certainly does not ensure a high level of value from the perspective of the client.

But there is an even more troubling side to our propensity to describe ourselves as busy.  As Ryder Carroll, the creator of the Bullet Journalling method, noted in his TEDx talk at Yale:


“Being busy doesn’t mean that you are being productive.

A lot of the time, being busy just means that you are in a state of being functionally overwhelmed.”

Carroll says that this extraordinary level of busyness stems from the extraordinary amount of choice we have. After all, every choice requires us to make a decision. And every decision requires focus. But here’s the rub: Focus requires our energy and our time — our two most valuable resources. According to Carroll, every unnecessary choice is a distraction. As we eliminate those unnecessary choices, we reduce distractions, thereby increasing our available time and focus. So unless we are disciplined about reducing the number of unnecessary choices in our life, we end up depleting our most valuable resources without a corresponding benefit.

Ryder Carroll’s TEDx talk hit me with extra force as I wrap up an amazing year in which I started a new job with fabulous possibilities. As I have learned, all those possibilities have led to a To-Do list that just won’t stop. I’ve tried working until I get closer to the end of the list, but that is a recipe for exhaustion rather than a sustainable approach. (After all, it’s a never-ending list.) So my resolution for 2019 is to be even more deliberate in assessing What goes onto my To-Do list, understanding that every task on that list represents a choice that requires a decision, my focus, and my nonrenewable time.

How will you deal with your own never-ending To-Do list in 2019? How will you avoid the state of being functionally overwhelmed?

My wish for all of us is that we have a truly productive and satisfying 2019.

Happy New Year!





Pick a Fight in 2018

In the last few days of a year, it’s natural to review the year that is slipping away and consider plans for the year that is about to begin. If you are lucky, you will have cause for some self-congratulation and not too much regret. Inevitably, this annual review results in promises of change for the new year. And so we begin the perennial cycle of wishful thinking known as New Year’s Resolutions.

While I’m not planning to make any major resolutions for 2018, I think I might commit to picking some fights instead. For those of you who know me in person or through my writing, that statement may seem a little out of character. But please bear with me. Here are the battles in which I intend to engage:

Fight the delusion of rational decisionmaking

Having grown up in the legal industry, I am used to dealing with people who take great pride in their good judgment, critical thinking, and rational decisionmaking. So it was a revelation to read Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. He opened my eyes to the ways in which our minds trick us into making questionable decisions time and time again. We are not nearly as objective or rational as we believe. For example, we too often make decisions out of emotion or instinct and then dress those decisions up with “supporting data.” At the risk of disappointing you, I must tell you that this happens in all human spheres —  including the legal industry. Just because you have confirming data does not mean you are right.

To understand more about the pitfalls of human decisionmaking and how it is affected by our well-intended but sometimes unfounded belief in our own objectivity, I’d encourage you to read Thinking Fast and Slow. If you don’t have time right now for this fairly large tome, watch the following brief videos to get a sense of the scope of the issue:

Fight the opacity of numbers

As the world becomes more complex, some of us take an ostrich-like approach by burying our heads in the sand. Others seek to understand what is going on by gamely trying to master as much of the relevant data as possible. However, even this more responsible approach has its own hazards. Among the biggest are that we aren’t all sufficiently numerate to understand what those numbers are saying (or not saying) and we cannot always see what is behind those numbers. For example, when you see survey results do you also spend some time to understand the survey methodology and the implications of the choices made in how the data were collected and interpreted?

Things are complicated enough when reviewing a relatively small survey. What happens when you are dealing with thousands or millions of data points in this era of big data? Then you rely on algorithms to help you sort and interpret the data. However, we are learning that those algorithms are not necessarily neutral or objective. Rather, they encode the assumptions and biases of the people who created those algorithms. When you don’t understand those assumptions and biases, you put yourself in danger of making decisions based on algorithms that may not, in fact, serve you well.

To learn more about how to make numbers more transparent and meaningful, start by watching these two videos:

Fight the corrosiveness of certainty

Despite impressive advances in human development, individual omniscience is still not possible. However, there are lots of people in denial about this. They believe they know all the answers and, therefore, rarely ask the key questions that can upend their certainties and unlock new stores of understanding. If we had a little less certainty and bit more curiosity we would reduce the occurrence of “unintended” consequences. Ultimately, excessive certainty corrodes our critical thinking abilities.

So in 2018, I’ll be asking more of the following questions:

  • What don’t I know?
  • What is missing? What hasn’t been disclosed?
  • What if my understanding is not correct?
  • What disconfirming evidence exists? And how persuasive is it?
  • Would I reach a different conclusion if my goal were generosity rather than self-protection?

Fight the comfort of complacency

Humans are creatures of comfort. However, that comfort can be a dangerous gift. It provides temporary respite but may blind us to potential opportunities and dangers. Sometimes this is because we assume that the current situation will continue indefinitely or that a better (or worse) event is unlikely to occur. And what is the source of this false assumption? Often, it is our lack of understanding of the actual root cause of the current situation or our failure to observe and properly interpret ambient information or patterns of behavior that may indicate an imminent change. This blindness leads us into imprudent complacency.

So how to fight complacency? First, learn how to identify a root cause. This analysis is a staple of many business school courses. It should be a staple of every high school’s curriculum. Until we identify the root cause, any conclusions we draw and any interventions we propose will be flawed.

The second way to fight complacency is to turn up your own antennae. Start noticing what is happening around you. The old adage that we see what we are looking for is true. So start looking for more, start looking for different.

  • What surprises you?
  • What patterns do you observe? Are they similar to or different from prior patterns? Why?
  • What is the likely outcome?
  • What could change that outcome?

In these next few days, I’ll be preparing for my chosen battles. I hope you’ll consider joining me in at least one of them. At a minimum, we will have a clearer understanding of what is and what isn’t.

Wouldn’t that be a good start for the new year?

[Photo Credit: By kris krüg from Vancouver, Canada (Malloreigh – Retouch) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]


Finding Meaning After the End of Time

mayan-calendar.jpg I’m writing this in the wee hours of the morning of December 21 and am happy to report that despite worries to the contrary, the world has not ended in New York City — yet.  It appears that the Mayan Calendar anxiety was misplaced. So back to business as usual?

Not so fast.

No matter whether you found the whole Mayan Calendar furor laughable or sobering, the focus on the end of time is a good reminder to think about how we spend our time. The reality is that most of us devote the bulk of our waking hours to work, but how many of us find our work truly engaging? You have to wonder when the most commented upon blog post on the HBR Blog Network in the last 24 hours was Finding Meaning at Work, Even When Your Job Is Dull. The authors of that post begin with the following attention grabber:

Do you experience meaning at work — or just emptiness?

In the United States people spend on average 35 – 40 hours working every week. That’s some 80,000 hours during a career — more time than you will spend with your kids probably. Beyond the paycheck, what does work give you? Few questions could be more important. It is sad to walk through life and experience work as empty, dreadful, a chore — sapping energy out of your body and soul. Yet many employees do, as evidenced by one large-scale study showing that only 31% of employees were engaged.

Another post this week addresses the lack of engagement in the workplace with words of advice for managers:  To Give Your Employees Meaning, Start With Mission. The post begins by quoting Jim Collins:

It is impossible to have a great life unless it is a meaningful life. And it is very difficult to have a meaningful life without meaningful work.

I’ve written before about the importance of being purpose-driven, and these authors also focus on purpose, as articulated in a mission statement and as embodied by an organization’s leadership. The point of the exercise is that when you feel you are making a difference in the world, you will take ownership of your work. That’s a recipe for engagement.

Better still, engagement is not only for the young. In Don’t Leave a Legacy; Live One, we learn that age need not be a barrier to accomplishing something meaningful. The author is the founder and CEO of an organization, Encore.org, that  awards Purpose Prizes annually to honor

…individuals who are making monuments out of what many consider the leftover years, not only finding personal meaning but doing creative and entrepreneurial work that means more — work aimed at solving fundamental problems facing the nation and the world today.

Yet the quest for meaning in work shouldn’t be overly romanticized. The author of Finding the Job of Your Life reminds us that

A meaningful job has boring moments, scary moments, angry moments. It is not a flat line of unvarying personal fulfillment. Nothing is great if it is monotone. There is no job of your life out there, waiting to be found. There are only jobs that may make you feel more or less alive. If you allow them to, that is.

While we may not be face to face with the end of time at this very minute, it’s never too soon to consider the importance of spending time wisely. After all, you don’t know how much time you have left.

[Photo Credit: Carolann Quart]