Busy vs. Engaged

There is a seductive appeal to being busy. It speaks of importance, of being in demand, of having a lot on our plate and playing a vital role in getting it all done.

Being busy is also a lovely escape. The busier we are, the less that we have to think about what is keeping us busy, why we are busy and whether the busy-ness is actually moving us closer to where we want to be.

The challenge is that there is a delicate balance to all that getting stuff done. Not enough, and we worry about our place in the world. Too much, and we start asking about whether we are in the right place. Just right, and we could blissfully avoid those questions for a very long time.

Being busy and feelings of stress are strongly intertwined. Both can be useful, positive and motivating, provided they’re at reasonable levels, in response to the right pressures and not resulting in us feeling massively overwhelmed (or disengaged). The challenge of an interesting project, one that stretches our skills and abilities, can be stressful—we’re learning—without being overwhelming. Being buried under a mountainous load of work is the kind of stress none of us tend to do well with.

The busier we get, the more that we try to cope. The challenge is that we don’t necessarily recognize when we are being pushed outside of our comfort zone. We focus more, we miss a workout, we stay a little later, we cancel a date to have drinks with a friend. Keep going, and we are cancelling dinners, giving up sleep and losing our weekends in an effort to keep on top of things.

The challenge is that when we hit a wall, it is as abrupt as the metaphor suggests. I vividly remember a particular weekend in my twenties, working on yet another weekend to meet yet another deadline. It was sunny, early summer and gorgeous; people were playing in the park, relaxing on patios, dining al fresco and enjoying the beautiful weather. I was hunched over a word processor, grinding out a deliverable, with many hours more work to go. That was the point where I really questioned what I was doing and why. The challenge is that at that point you are rarely in a good headspace to even objectively begin to answer the question.

That’s not to say I haven’t given up weekends, lost sleep or cancelled appointments to meet a deadline since then. Unlike the entrepreneurial myth, working for yourself or running a company doesn’t mean you have the luxury of scheduling your own hours. You need to be responsive to your customers, to your employees and your colleagues, and frequently wind up placing their needs before your own. Which, when you get down to it, isn’t necessarily any different from being an employee. The expectations might flow in a different direction on the org chart, but the end result is pretty much the same.

The other challenge is the consequences that result from excess hours doing work of questionable (or even critical) value. We lose sleep, make poor eating choices, make even worse exercise choices. We’re tired, unfocussed and cranky. At the extremes, we might be resentful of the task at hand, and the toll it is taking on our lives. At that point, our productivity tanks and our enthusiasm plunges to subterranean levels. What should take an hour if we were focussed can take eight, or ten, or twelve.

Even knowing that our attention is compromised, the attention to the deadline means that we often don’t give ourselves a break (even though a break might very well be exactly the thing that we need in order to get some energy back). Instead, we give in to the temptation of flicking between applications, checking our email, checking social media or finding any number of other distractions made available in abundance by the wonders of the internet. We might look like we’re working, and it may even feel like it, but our objective level of productivity may be far less than we think.

The challenge is what to do about this state of affairs. The easy answer, of course, would be not to get there in the first place. Take on only meaningful and engaging work. Say “no” a lot. Eat well. Exercise regularly. Get a good nights sleep every night. Sounds easy on paper, and yet it’s so very difficult to do.

What isn’t much easier, but no less critical, is to not try to answer the big “why?” questions when you are all the way down the rabbit hole. Things are different there, time works mysteriously and there are unknown but intriguing bottles that say, “Drink me.” Get out of the hole, get some perspective, and then take stock of what happened on why.

That might mean powering through to meet the deadline. And even the one after that. But find some time and space to reflect on where you are, what you are doing, and what value your are getting out of the work from the perspective of calm and rested, not overwhelmed and flustered. Even better, get some insight from others. This is when the value of having our own personal advisory network comes into its own. These are the very few, very valued people that understand your world, have your back and will speak honestly to your face about what they are seeing and why. They won’t necessary tell you what to do, but they won’t let you run away from the truth either.

If the deadline is completely unrealistic, then be realistic about that as well. If you aren’t going to meet the deadline—or produce the quality of work that is required in order to meet the deadline—then there is no point killing yourself just to prove the point. Be realistic about what you can do, and what you can’t do. Raise the white flag. Be clear about what isn’t possible, and realistic about what is. That might be a difficult conversation to have. But the critique of a slipshod deliverable done late is often a whole lot less fun.

Be realistic about your workload as well, and what’s possible in terms of the work that you actually take on. That can be harder to do when something is really appealing and exciting, particularly if what you have on your plate right now is less enthusing and interesting. But it all has to get done, so taking on more simply runs the risk of setting yourself up for failure. Making choices is hard—and making difficult choices is harder—but
being clear about what is possible is fundamental. And if you still choose to say “yes” then go in eyes-wide-open about what it means, and what the potential consequences are.

And when you are planning your work (you DO plan out your work, don’t you?), try to leave buffer space to deal with the unknown and unexpected. Because you will find your schedule challenged and challenging, your deadlines looming, and having a nice clear space in your calendar marked “catch up time” or “focus time” can be awfully valued. And blocking that time off can be critical when others can see your calendar, so that they don’t keep on scheduling meetings in the blank spaces.

As well, be honest. Sometimes life is going to happen, and you’re simply going to need to deal with it. The irony of writing this article is that while I know most of these strategies, I also fall prey to them. I get attracted to a new project. I look at my schedule optimistically, believing that if I can just sustain an optimal level of productivity for an extended period, I can get it all done. I know I should block off spots in my calendar, and yet important requests get made of me, and those are the spots that get compromised to make it all work.

I wasn’t sure I was actually going to get an article written this week. I wasn’t sure I would get my weekly newsletter out either. The ultimate irony was that in the middle of writing this article a pipe burst in my basement. Fortunately we caught it early, there was no lasting damage and a plumber is available this afternoon. The consequences are little more than a pile of very wet towels, a slightly elevated stress level and the day is a couple hours further along then where I’d like it to be. My week was already full, and my capacity to cope is being sorely tested.

The immediate consequences of today are that I’ve had to do some juggling and rearranging. Commitments got changed. I might lose a couple of hours sleep. And next week, I’ll step back and check in with myself on how I’m doing, what I’m doing and why. And sometime in the future, I’ll probably find myself here again.

The point of it all isn’t living the perfect life, entirely in balance. Into everyone’s life, a bit of insanity must fall. We will all find ourselves down the rabbit hole once in a while. The key is not to live there. And when circumstances find you following the white rabbit more often than you’d like, it’s time to ask some important questions. And to find honest and meaningful answers. Busy will happen, but engagement is ultimate what matters.

5 Comments to “Busy vs. Engaged”

  1. Jeanette Tudor says:

    Mark, thank you for today’s article! I attempt to read your pieces every few weeks, and of course, stuff gets in the way. But I forced myself to stop today and read this in it’s entirety (only got distracted twice). I especially like your ending sentence: Busy will happen, but engagement is ultimately what matters.

    Thank you !

  2. Ditto to what Jeanette says! I, like you, am aware of all the tools required to stay on top of a busy schedule, both at work and home, but it’s very easy to forget how to use them! The #1 thing I do to stay on top of things is to be organized; e.g., I broke up with my iCalendar in favour of a paper, monthly planner, to manage my personal life. Thanks for this post, and your regular engagement with us, your readers!

  3. Mark Mullaly says:

    Thanks so much for the feedback. Glad it has touched a chord. It’s an important insight that in many ways we know what we should do, but we simply forget (or least allow ourselves to ignore) doing it. Finding what works for each of us is key, and following through on using it (I want the luxury of a paper planner, but I know that having access to it wherever I am is just too critical to get away with it).

    Continuing to review and assess how we are doing, where we are going and the challenges and stumbling blocks along the way is the other part, though, in striving to stay engaged.

    Thanks for keeping in touch!

  4. Katie says:

    Thanks, wonderful article.

  5. Katie says:

    Very helpful post. Great read!

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