I spent most of my career thinking that I was thriving on busyness. As a management consultant, busyness via multi-tasking was rewarded. What did that look like? The calendar was full of “important” meetings, professional dinners and other business events. Being busy felt good. It gave the illusion of importance and accomplishment. It seemed to indicate high performance. I had great productivity metrics in terms of practice revenues, size of team, etc. However, at the same time, I was plagued with migraine headaches and did not spend much time on “non-professional” activities. I was not aware of nor aligned with my purpose.
It is only after I left a corporate career as equity partner with PriceWaterhouseCoopers CEE that I began to notice, slowly, that busyness had put me into the category of surviving rather than thriving.
In her 2014 book, Thrive, Arianna Huffington tells us about her personal collapse and subsequent journey to redefining success. I learned for the first time what thriving really means. To thrive is to flourish, to be fulfilled, to develop successfully. In order to thrive, Arianna shifted to new metrics around wellbeing, wisdom and wonder. To achieve strong metrics in these three areas, busyness is not the road to success!
Fast forward to 2021. Seven years later we are facing more barriers to thriving due to digital overload. Busyness on multiple devices is causing technostress, the negative effect of technology. Knowledge workers have a high level of this type of stress.
“Technostress comes from our feeling forced to multitask rapidly over streams of information from different devices, having to constantly learn how to use ever-changing IT and the sense of being tied to our devices with no real divide between work and home.” – Monideepa Tarafdar, technostress researcher
In the 2016 book, Deep Work, Cal Newport, warns us about busyness as a barrier to value creation, especially in knowledge worker organizations. He highlights three business trends that began around 2015.
The above work designs were a priority. They were viewed, possibly unintentionally, as more important than undistracted, focused, deep work time.
Now we can add a fourth business trend contributing to busyness – increased remote work. This trend blurs the lines between home and work. We are interrupted not just by our technology, but by our home environment which often includes family, pets, and other non-tech distractions. We are plagued with too many on-line meetings, causing us to work longer hours in order to create real value.
These four trends increase busyness. They actively decrease the knowledge worker’s ability to go deep. “Deep” refers to Newports term, “deep work”. Deep work consists of
“professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve skills and are hard to replicate.”
“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.” – Cal Newport
How many organizations are measuring loss of attention? Is anyone measuring how many hours are spent in meetings, instant messaging or on social media during the work day? How many organizations are measuring the number of overtime hours knowledge workers spend because they can’t get their deep work done during the day? I bet not many.
If the above behaviours were measured, organizations would be able to see the negative impact to the bottom line. This might nudge leaders to act. They would see the opportunity to shift the culture of busyness to a culture that protects and harnesses collective attention.
Protecting and harnessing organizational attention improves three performance areas at the same time: wellbeing, innovation and effectiveness. When knowledge workers are able to harness attention, effectiveness goes up, reducing evening and weekend hours spent on deep work. Wellbeing rises immediately, as does the ability to innovate.
Stay tuned for a future article about the link between attention and innovation.