Being busy in is a badge of honor for most Americans. Many take great pride in telling others how they sacrifice everything from daily lunches to vacations at the altar of work. And even among those who indulge in vacations, 69 percent boasted in a U.S. survey in 2013 that they would take along a work-capable device. Sixty-one percent said they would pack three such devices.
So what results from this outwardly high attachment to work? Emails that are answered faster and a few documents that are reviewed faster -- and maybe the feeling of always being on top of things.
But do Americans pay a price for being busy all the time? Answering that question requires a deeper understanding of the nature of work.
All work is not created equal. Some work is closely intertwined with other people's endeavours -- peers are seeking advice or help on their work or a project manager is waiting for a task to be completed so she or he can move on to the next item in a master plan. This is sometimes considered “busy work” because it requires completing a bunch of tactical to-do’s. And the output is almost always a function of the amount of time spent on the to-do list.
Then, there is work that is important to a division, a group or the company because of its strategic implications. Often, this is work that offers significant learning opportunities, aligns with career advancement and provides a deeply satisfying sense of accomplishment. And for business owners, this is the type of inspired strategic decision-making that could move the company from having zero to $2 million in revenue or from $10 million to $50 million. This category of work requires creative thinking and problem solving. Results are not necessarily proportional to effort. I call this nonlinear thinking.
Because Americans often confuse being productive with being busy and being busy with projecting an image of competence, they often loathe to do the projects that put them in a nonlinear, creative mode. In other words, because they are so focused on short-term goals, like clearing in-boxes, they rarely slow down to let their brain work at a deeper level and think creatively and in a nonlinear fashion. In the process, they shortchange themselves, their careers and companies.
Can this be fixed so people can be both creative and productive?
This is a topic near and dear to me since I founded Intellinote, a startup with a mission to empower people to organize their work. At my young company, invaribly 20 different things need to be completed each day. At the same time major decisions must be made weekly that could have huge implications for the future of the business. I've come to realize that there are three things that people need to do to generate both long-term and short-term results:
1. Recognize two types of functions and classify work life according to the “get work done” bucket and the “think strategically” bucket.
2. Block off at least two to three hours on a weekly basis that are completely free from distractions and interruptions. This will allow the brain time to slow down and become immersed in the problem at hand, something very important and quite effective for engendering creativity. The hard part is having the strength to stick to this type of a schedule for two to three months to realize deeply satisfying, reinforcing results.
3. Finally, take the time to brainstorm with trusted peers or an insightful manager on a weekly basis to stimulate different ways of thinking and allow for problems to be approached with fresh, creative perspectives. This is a great way to learn from others and strengthen work networks, which everyone needs, wants and likes.
How have you tackled maximizing productivity and creativity at your company? I would love to hear from you.
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