Get free of the busyness trap and focus on delivering value.

Productivity Value Delivery Busy

If no one can see you working, did you produce anything worthwhile?

That’s the question—unarticulated and masquerading as a mysterious sense of fraudulence—that haunted my first week on a fully distributed team. Fortunately, one of my inaugural assignments was to read a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, where I came across this: 

Knowledge workers, I’m arguing, are tending toward increasingly visible busyness because they lack a better way to demonstrate their value. [...] In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.


Without realizing it, I’d grown dependent on Being Seen While Doing Things in order to feel worthy of my paychecks from my onsite jobs. Then I quit cold turkey by taking a remote position that allowed no one to physically see or hear me doing anything at all. I felt like a big, fat fraud. Good news though: it was only a feeling. A feeling that passed once I uncoupled busyness from productivity and slowly learned to trust the new paradigm for work I’d somehow landed in where what I produce gets judged on its own merit, not on how much of a scene I make while producing it.

Gradually, a little painfully, and quite without meaning to, I’d gotten free of the busyness trap.

The busyness trap...

Imagine a dude at a desk eyeballing a computer screen. He types something, then mutters, “No, that’s not right.” He stares at the screen, his brow furrowed. He types something else, sighs, opens a new tab in his browser, types some more, says, “Hm.” This goes on for a good two hours.

Now imagine the same dude, the same computer screen. But this time there’s a phone on the desk. And the phone rings. A lot. Each time it starts ringing again, the dude stops all the typing, staring, and muttering to answer it. He’s friendly, talking with the caller for a moment or two, answering questions. Then it’s back to the screen until the phone rings again.

In which of these scenarios is he more productive? Well, here’s what you don’t know:

  • What he’s typing:
    A grant proposal worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to the nonprofit he works for. To win the grant, he must write with care, articulating in compelling fashion the ways in which his organization’s mission and objectives align with the grant agency’s.

  • Who’s on the phone:
    Members of the public inquiring about his organization’s hours of operation, schedule of events, new volunteer orientations, and so on. Important callers, to be sure, but not ones that require his attention in particular.

He’s busier in scenario number two, no doubt; but he’s producing significantly greater value in scenario number one. Even so, if he works in an environment where visible busyness wins him daily appreciation and respect, he may—as I once did—feel far more important in scenario number two (if also harried and frustrated). And that, friends, is the siren song of busyness: Sure, it diminishes our ability to deliver value; but if it’s the measure of our productivity, it’s also what makes us believe we have value. Something of a quagmire, eh. The worst part is that its ubiquity makes it hard to spot. A dead giveaway though? Everyone’s complain-bragging about how busy they are.

Busybragging like it's our J-O-B:

My personal job history includes a few meeting-dense work environments. There were scheduled meetings and impromptu meetings, short meetings and long meetings. Formal meetings complete with presentations and more laid back meetings complete with donuts. One constant in this meeting mélange was the grumbling:

I don’t have time for this.
No kidding. You should see my inbox.
Right? I was here till 7 o’clock last night and I’m still playing catch-up.

I suspect it started as a genuine expression of frustration at the way meetings often do, in fact, interrupt workflow and eat up time. But then it just became the way we talk about meetings. And that, I’d guess, is because something important had been established with all that initial grumbling: productive people don’t like meetings because meetings disrupt their productivity. Whether that’s true or not is beside the point. The point is that complaining about meetings is a way to signal that we’re productive.

So is announcing the number of emails in our inboxes. Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you about that; there were SIXTY NEW EMAILS waiting for me this morning and I haven’t waded through them all, ugh. We’re busy, important people. How busy and important? Sixty new emails worth.

On the other hand, who would volunteer that they’ve been staring at their computer screen for two hours trying to get the wording just right on one section of the grant proposal they’ve been writing for the past four days? Never mind the impressive volume of funding that single writing assignment may secure, I’ve been fiddling with words for two hours just doesn’t pack the same punch as the sixty emails thing. So we don’t brag about that. We brag about busyness, not value delivery. And we do it so much, so often, so repetitively that when all that noise suddenly goes away? We feel like we’re not working at all. I did, anyway.

But the silence heralds a new freedom wherein we don’t have to feel A) constantly beleaguered and B) obliged to say so to anyone who’ll listen in order to prove we’ve earned our spot on the company roster. All we need do is work.

Granted, that sounds simpler than it really is. After all, there’s getting out of the busyness trap in the first place—an uncomfortable endeavor to be sure.

Out of the busyness trap and into the angst:

I got lucky. I was hired to work remotely on a team that couldn’t care less how many emails hit my inbox each day. Not to mention the fact that I haven’t heard a single busybrag in the going-on-six-months I’ve been here. I quit Being Seen While Doing Things cold turkey is what I’m saying. But I suspect getting free of the busyness trap involves largely the same practices regardless of how long the process takes:

  • Stop busybragging. It sounds easy enough on the face of it. But at least for me, the hard part is refraining from saying I don’t have time for things—a subtle form of busybragging. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that anyone stop protecting their time. I’m only advocating a different way of talking about it. Instead of, “Sorry, I just don’t have the time,” try “No, this is my priority right now.” By choosing not to play the busyness card, we loosen the trap’s hold on us.

  • Focus on output. My days of working out of inboxes and responding to notifications right away are over. Instead I think mindfully about what I hope to accomplish in my next work session and plan my day around that. Then I follow my plan. I may not look very busy, but if I keep my eyes on the goal the results speak for themselves.

  • Expect to feel discomfort. I get the impression that the obsession with busyness is primarily an American thing, but if that’s where you work, abstaining from Being Seen While Doing Things probably isn’t going to feel good at first. And maybe that’s true elsewhere too. It is, after all, how so many of us have learned to demonstrate our value. If we don’t do it, we’re going to feel somewhat useless until we get accustomed to letting what we produce do the bragging for us.

Ultimately, the discomfort passes once we’ve successfully broken the link between busyness and productivity. Which, admittedly, may take more time for those who spend their workdays alongside a bunch of as-yet-unliberated busybraggers. If that’s your situation, consider looking for work friends among the quiet ones. Chances are, their skills are focused in areas that don’t involve putting on a show and they’re just as wearied by all the posturing as you are.

Let your work do the shining.

The idea here is not to set a new standard of perfection based on productivity rather than on busyness; it’s merely to shift our allegiance from impression management to delivering value with our work products, whatever they may be. In the end, it comes down to ego, doesn’t it? When we work from within the busyness trap, we have an audience. And we want to inspire its applause. Give up on Being Seen While Doing Things and the audience doesn’t disappear; it’s just that they’re not here for us anymore. They’re here for the creation, not the creator. Should they applaud, we can still feel proud. But we’ve given up the heady rush of successfully showing off our importance.

Our work has the attention now. Our job is to make it shine.


Photo by Joel Peel