When Did “Busy!” Become The Correct Answer To “How Are Things?”

See if you can spot this one.”

Those are the words spoken at the beginning of Eric Clapton’s unplugged version of his classic song Layla. The song was originally performed by Eric when he was with Derek and the Dominos. Eric’s nickname is “Slow Hand”, which is an oxymoron.  He is one of the great guitar players of all time.  The original version is upbeat with really amazing guitar lines throughout. What I love most about the unplugged version of the song is how he slowed it down and changed the rhythm so much you wonder if it is even the same song.

This paradox in music hit home with me as I considered the changes in my role at work over the past several months. Prior to the change, I was responsible for a line of business within our organization.  I had a plan, a forecast, a P&L, a team and a bunch of opportunities to pursue that all felt time sensitive.  Sure there were always opportunities for improvement, new ideas, process work, etc. on my mind, but the focus was on “get stuff done”.  It was easy to validate my contribution to the organization by the number of decisions I made, the number of lines through items on my to-do list, and by looking at my forecast and my P&L to see what we had accomplished.  I was Derek and the Dominos.

In my new role, there is very little that happens fast. My role is one of “internal management consultant” where I have no line responsibilities (no forecast, no P&L, etc.) and really nothing in the way of deadlines.  Certainly there is a need to produce results, but that is also one of the challenges in the work as results are not immediate.  I look at where we might change the way we do things or new things we might do to make our business better.  It can feel really laid back, academic, more about getting things right than getting things done.  Kind of like Eric Clapton Unplugged.

time-quadrants1In Stephen Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, he talks about the four quadrants of time management.  What I’ve described above is a shift in my working patterns from a predominantly Q1 style to one that is mostly Q2.  I’ve found it to be somewhat uncomfortable for a couple of reasons.

First is that I’m having to learn how to value my own work in different ways. What I’ve learned today? Have I collaborated well? Have I built consensus around new ideas? Have I discovered anything new today? Can I ascribe business value to theory?

Second, operating at a different pace than the rest of the organization makes it more challenging to engage.  Pardon the introduction of a competing metaphor, but it can feel like trying to enter a full-speed freeway from a stop sign instead of a merge lane. In our fast-paced, get things done world, people are nervous about slowing down for a period that makes them feel like they are getting behind. It’s quite interesting that just the fact that I’m doing Q2 work in our Q1 world has people asking questions that sound a lot like “shouldn’t you be taking care of something a bit more urgent?”

Try an experiment. As you meet and greet people asking the question “How are things?” notice what percentage of the time people answer “I’m busy!”.  Watch your own responses as well, and set yourself a challenge to substitute something else, anything else, for the response “Busy!” Busy has become a badge of honor.

What are the implications of this?

  1. Busy breeds busy. Q1 is about doing tasks that are both urgent and important.  These do need to be done.  But spending too much time being busy is a death spiral of crisis management.  The only way to break the cycle is to find a way to spend time on important things before they become a crisis.  Fix the root of the problem, not the symptoms of the problem.
  2. Watch how we measure ourselves.  If we pride ourselves on full calendars, emails handled, phone calls taken and placed and other activity based measures we’re missing  an opportunity.  That is the opportunity to work “on the business” instead of “in the business”.  Let’s assume our competitors are good at working “in their business” as well.  Our ability to differentiate isn’t going to come from our ability to outwork them (although it might help for a while).  It is going to come from our ability to innovate, form better relationships, find cost efficiency, etc.  We have to “out-think” them.
  3. Creating A Two Speed Culture. My friend and coach Kerry Parsons once remarked to me that high achievers fear slowing down for corners or stop signs simply because they have to slow down.  What they don’t think about is that once they’ve rounded the corner there is nothing stopping them from going fast again.  The purpose of slowing down for the corner is to change directions. How might leaders be more cognizant of this? First to give themselves permission to slow down for periods to work “on the business”, but more importantly that we think of our team members in this regard and  build objectives requiring slower Q2 time into everyone’s plan.

So how might we channel our inner Eric Clapton and unplug once in a while? what benefits might we get out of it personally? How might it help us actually be more effective at work simply by doing things smarter?  What experience to you have with taking this “two-speed” approach?

Published by

Ian Munro @ leadingessentially.com

Ian Munro is a leadership and vitality coach with a primary passion for working with senior professionals who wish to improve their connection to and vitality in their career, or who wish to make a transition to a meaningful and rewarding retirement. His methods are focused on helping clients understand why they present as they do in day-to-day life, discover their authentic self and give themselves permission to build a meaningful and rewarding future, both professional and personal. Ian’s love for this work has developed naturally as he built his career as an executive and leader in the IT services industry, serving in many roles and facets of this industry over 25 years. As he reached the pinnacle of his career he began to search more deeply for meaning and alternate rewards from his own career and to begin to plan for his own “first retirement”.

15 thoughts on “When Did “Busy!” Become The Correct Answer To “How Are Things?”

  1. Very well written Ian – I love the analogy of getting onto a highway from a stop sign or a merging ramp.

    An interesting observation about myself, having taken the Covey course and reading the material. He teaches that ideally we should be working mostly from Q2, I have to say that I think I’m happiest when a few Q1s are going on, otherwise I start to get bored. 🙂
    Diana xo

    1. ?

      Hi Diana. I’m in total agreement with you that I want some Q1’s. In fact I’m probably just coming off my addiction to them … if I didn’t have them I felt left out, unimportant, unfulfilled. I think that is the important part of understanding our ability to slow down … that we understand our relationship to tasks and manage ourselves accordingly.


  2. I am currently in high Q1 drive. On Friday, we had a meeting with our design team to talk about ideas on how to speed up the integration of some new messaging — Friday is my day off — I ‘had no choice’ but to go in for the meeting, just as I ‘have no choice’ but to attend a 10am conference call today.

    And that for me is the challenge of high Q1 — we tell ourselves, “I have no choice”. “It’s a dog eat dog world out there, do or die.” blah blah blah. And in the process, hook ourselves up to the Q1 train without stopping to take a look to determine — is there another way?

    As I read your post — and I agree with Diana, well written and love that analogy — the thought that we don’t question — is there another way? — is what keeps the Q1 drive alive.

    I too took the Covey course and found myself wanting to live more in the Q2. I think one of the challenges is that because so many of us are addicted to Q1 energy, we crowd out Q2 thinking.

    You’ve inspired my blog this morning Ian — I hadn’t written it yet, wasn’t even thinking about what it was going to be about (I do so like the pressure of in the moment 🙂 ) — noow… it just may be a story about a man I knew who was a recovering alcoholic and how it all relates to your post today. 🙂

  3. Great post. I’ve been thinking about busyness lately and have concluded that the majority of angst we feel around busyness isn’t a function of too much to do, but rather to much choice.

  4. The problem with having all Q1 tasks is that the moment they stop, people want some relief and go straight to Q4 time wasters. Finding a balance between all 4 quadrants is probably the perfect scenario– does Covey agree? I should read that that book eh…..

    It’s the negativity that comes with the I’m Busy response that bothers me. I get that everyone is busy, but if I’m asking you whats up it’s probably because I give a shit. If every interaction I have with you is negative I will stop trying. Nobody wins. Tell me why you’re busy. Stop and give me 5 minutes of Q4.

  5. I read Covey’s book over a decade ago and it became my bible in so many ways. It is genius. Forgive me, but I believe that Q1 situations are actually quite rare. To me, they represent things such as people having heart attacks, premises burning down, the stock-market collapsing. Things that are going to be devastating to your business or your life. I feel the ‘error’ of the modern work ethic is that we all think that Q3 things are Q1 when they are not. If you look at each issue in the grand scheme of things (as to whether it will be relevant in five years time), most things we consider ‘urgent’ may indeed be ‘urgent’ but most of them are not really all that important… not when you really think about it.

    I do agree that spending more time in Q2 is vitally important for one’s own mental health and for getting the balance correct in regard to our connections and creative contributions.

      1. Go ahead. May I suggest you may also want to read David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’. Although there are many time-management books this one (to me) stands out because effectively what David Allen says to do (take time out, compile your tasks, categorize, prioritize, begin) is to give yourself permission to go into Covey’s Quadrant 2 planning quadrant and sort out your quadrant 1 tasks from your quadrant 3 tasks. It is amazing, after you analyze, how few “really important” tasks there are left . We all think Quadrant 3 tasks are important because they are (seemingly) urgent. Therefore we tend to prioritize them and rush about to get them done because we never take the time to really think about how important they really are (or not). That is where Quadrant 2 comes in and as Stephen Covey and David Allen say – we have a need to go there (into Quadrant 2) often.

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