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Five of the best ways to be less busy all the time

Alistair Cox, Chief Executive, Hays

 

In your eyes, how does a “successful” person spend their time? Do they work tirelessly every hour of the day and night? Are they constantly rushing from one meeting to the next, never really coming up for air? Can they be spotted every day eating their lunch at their desk, whilst dialling into a conference call and checking their emails all at the same time? If you think this is what “successful” looks like, then, in most cases, you’re wrong.

In my last blog, I explained why it is that I think you’re wrong. I explained how I think, that, actually, “successful” looks more like reflection and contemplation. It looks more like thought and pause. Why? Because it’s these stolen moments of seemingly quiet, calm and tranquil time, that will, in fact, bring the best results, the best ideas and the best thinking. It’s those times when, in the eyes of others, it might look like we’re doing nothing, when we’re actually doing the most – it’s that simple.

So, I think it’s high time we got it out of our heads that in order to be seen as “successful” then we must, under all circumstances, and at all times, be seen to be ridiculously busy. It’s counterproductive, and quite frankly, damaging – both to our careers and our businesses.

But, how can we stop wearing busyness as a badge of honour?

But why now? Why is now the time to un-busy our working lives? As I explained in my last blog, the world of work is changing, it’s demanding more from us. It’s demanding more creativity. It’s demanding more strategic thinking. It’s demanding skills we might not have. And if we’re constantly running on a relentless treadmill of busyness, and never take a breath, how will we ever be able to meet the increasing demands that are being placed on us?

On the face of it, setting a new pace and proactively un-busying our working lives feels like it should be easy. But, for most of us, the ‘busy badge of honour’ we wear to work every day is tightly sewn on, it’s not going to budge easily. For most of us, ‘busy’ has formed part of our identities at work for years – we wear that ‘busy badge of honour’ with pride and will probably find it harder to remove than we thought.

So, how can we, on a practical and realistic level, train ourselves to stop with all the busyness, and instead, hit pause more often? Here are a few of my thoughts:

1. Change your mindset

I think a lot of this is down to our mindset. It’s time to change your own personal perception of what being busy really means to you and, also what being so busy really results in for you. Ask yourself, what is it that is driving your innate need to be busy all the time? An element of self-reflection and courage will be required here to proactively recalibrate these damaging misconceptions you’ve for held years. But, when you do hit reset on them – that’s when you’ll find real success. I’ve said this before, but the way we think has a huge impact on how successful we’ll ultimately be, and the same applies here.

So, you need to stop seeing busy as a positive state of being or something to strive for. You need to start realising that taking moments of pause throughout the day to refocus on what’s most important is far more productive and valuable than replying to ten emails in ten minutes, and then spending an hour in a meeting, that, if you’re honest with yourself, you didn’t really need to be in.

After all, if you pause and focus your mind on the tasks that will deliver the most value – instead of being busy for the sake of being busy and not really achieving anything – then you’ll be seen as far more successful – not because you’re busy, but because you’re focused, productive and aligned to the goals of the organisation.

So, start to change the way you think about busyness – no longer will it be your badge of honour or gold medal that you wear everyday with pride. Instead, understand that just because you’re not seen to be run off your feet, darting from meeting to meeting, sending hundreds of emails, that doesn’t mean you’re not delivering far more value and driving the right results.

2. Stop worrying so much about how others perceive you

This is a key point – stop worrying so much about what other people think of you. Stop worrying about how you’ll be perceived when you start taking a slower, more considered approach to your work. Stop worrying about the judgemental eyes on you when you walk out the office to clear your head or take a break. Stop worrying that you’ll be perceived as lazy or unproductive.

Now, of course, we’re all human, we all worry about what other people of think of us. After all, we’re social beings who seek approval from others. We think other people’s opinions of us will somehow dictate how successful we will be, so we act in a way that we think will make them think favourably of us. The same goes here – we ‘busy’ ourselves because we think this is how others expect us to operate if we’re to be successful.

Obviously, to be successful in business, a level of self-awareness is key. But worrying excessively about what others think of you can be hugely detrimental. So, within reason, try to stop worrying so much about how you are perceived. Remember, it’s the results and value you deliver which are most important, not how many emails you send out in any given day, or how quickly you respond to an email at 10 o’clock at night.

3. Understand that your time is precious

It’s all very well being busy working on high-value, strategically important tasks, but if you’re busy working on tasks to either avoid concentrating on those high-value, more difficult tasks, or to ensure you’re perceived as valuable or successful in some way, you may have a problem on your hands.

So, honestly ask yourself – are you busying yourself with the right things? Remember your time is precious, so use it focusing on the things that will deliver the most value. Every morning, when you get into the office, instead of automatically wading through hundreds of emails, take a moment of pause and contemplation. Ask yourself, “what is the one important thing I want to achieve today?” Focus your efforts on making that one important thing happen. That’s right, focus your efforts on making that one thing happen, not those tenthings happen. And as you’re spending your day focusing on that one thing, steal moments of solitude and reflection now and again to check you’re on the right track.

The most important decisions I’ve taken in business were in moments of quiet reflection, away from the office treadmill. Nobody would have realised what was on my mind at those times because I didn’t look like the archetypal leader issuing instructions in a crowded meeting. But they were far more important and far-reaching decisions that, hopefully, led to greater success for my company and all those in it. How might life have been if I hadn’t taken that time out to think about the important things as opposed to busying myself with the urgent things?

In reality, in order to really focus your efforts on getting that one thing done, you’ll either have to permanently remove some tasks from your never-ending to do list, or, you’ll have to delegate them – which I’ll go on to next. And, if new, seemingly low-priority tasks creep on to your radar, have the courage and conviction to say no, explaining your reasoning as you do.

The last point I want to make here is to be protective of your time. Block out time in your diary if you need to focus, decline meeting invites if they’re not a good use of your time. Take ownership of your time – it’s yours to manage, so be selfish with it. If that means taking a few moments, or a few hours to stop and think, then do it.

A while ago I went through my own diary to assess how much of my time was allocated to issues I wanted to work on, versus other people filling my time with their agenda. It was a shock to discover most of my time was set up for other people’s issues. Now, of course it’s important to spend time with colleagues, working with them on their challenges – that’s a part of a leader’s role after all – but if it means your own thinking time evaporates, then something is wrong. So be more ruthless to carve out your time, versus being at the beck and call of everyone else 24/7.

4. Recognise you can’t do everything yourself and start to let go

No matter how ‘productive’ you think you are, you’re only human – you can’t possibly do everything yourself, and neither should you. The most successful people know that. They live by it – it’s a mantra that’s helped them get to where they are today.

You have a team around you, so use them. You need to mentally ‘let go’ of those lower-value tasks you’ve been busying yourself with for years. Realise that you have a highly skilled and competent team around you who are ultimately there to help you deliver results. If you can’t trust them to do that, then you have a different problem!

Granted, many leaders struggle with ‘letting go’, as Occupational Psychologist, Maggi Evans explains in a blog she recently wrote for us: “Lots of leaders have a real fear of letting go. This is often underpinned by some unhelpful beliefs. For example, some leaders think they have got the best solution – which makes it difficult to trust others. Other leaders think they haven’t got time to explain the task to someone else, so they do it for them – time and time again.” Be honest with yourself, are these types of unhelpful beliefs stopping you from letting go of all the things that are making you too busy? I’d guess they are, but now is the time to build more helpful beliefs.

This all might feel like a wrench at first, but it can be hugely liberating – not just for you, but also for your team who are crying out to learn new things and develop. And, as time goes by and trust builds, you’ll find it far easier to delegate more – freeing up more of your time to think, pause, reflect and strategise for the future. It’s a ‘win-win’.

5. Disconnect

This is quite a simple point, and one which I referred to in my previous blog, but it’s something we all should do, regardless of our role or seniority. Switch off from your computer, peal yourself away from your desk and get out for a brisk walk. Make this your daily ritual – one that you protect and stick to – no excuses that you’re “too busy”.

For me personally, getting outdoors in some capacity helps my mind relax and unpacks the day. I find it brings clarity to complex issues. You’ll find that solutions to problems you’ve been pondering over for hours, somehow magically come into your mind. You’ll find that your mind starts wandering to new ideas and ventures, and you’ll return to the office re-energised and ready to have a focused and productive rest of the day, with a number of decisions already taken.

Also, when you’re working on a high-value task that demands your full attention, shut down your emails. I know it sounds like a wrench, somehow unnatural, and almost unprofessional, but do it. Being constantly bombarded with new, largely irrelevant or non-priority emails can contribute to us busying ourselves with the wrong things, and before we know it, the entire day has gone – and we’ve not achieved anything of real value, in fact, we’ve probably just created more non-important work for ourselves.

Disconnecting from technology can help free your mind to think more innovatively and creatively, as you’re not subconsciously waiting for the next message or distraction to pop up – instead you can completely focus on the high-value task in hand, giving it the full attention it demands.

So, the next time someone asks you, “How are you?” will your automatic stock response still be “Fine, thank you, just really busy”? I seriously hope not, and there’s not really much of an excuse for it anymore.

 

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Author

Alistair has been the CEO of Hays, plc since Sept. 2007. An aeronautical engineer by training (University of Salford, UK, 1982), Alistair commenced his career at British Aerospace in the military aircraft division. From 1983-1988, he worked Schlumberger filling a number of field and research roles in the Oil & Gas Industry in both Europe and North America. He completed his MBA (Stanford University, California) in 1991 and returned to the UK as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. His experience at McKinsey & Co covered a number of sectors including energy, consumer goods and manufacturing.

He moved to Blue Circle Industries in 1994 as Group Strategy Director, responsible for all aspects of strategic planning and international investments for the group. During this time, Blue Circle re-focused its business upon heavy building material in a number of new markets and in 1998, Alistair assumed the role of Regional Director responsible for Blue Circle’s operations in Asia, based in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. He was responsible for businesses in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam. Subsequent to the acquisition of Blue Circle by Lafarge in 2001, he also assumed responsibility for Lafarge’s operations in the region as Regional President for Asia.

In 2002, Alistair returned to the UK as CEO of Xansa, a UK based IT services and back-office processing organisation. During his 5 year tenure at Xansa, he re-focused the organisation to create a UK leading provider of back-office services across both the Public and Private sector and built one of the strongest offshore operations in the sector with over 6,000 people based in India.

 
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