Are you addicted to being busy? Join the club. As someone who has felt busy for the past 15 years, I am guilty of wanting to fill every second with activity.

 

Yet, as business psychologist Tony Crabbe explained to me recently, this idea of being in a constant state of "busyness" is not healthy or even that productive. His recent book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much cane out this summer. I asked him to contextualize some of his findings for small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

What can an entrepreneur do to avoid the busy trap at an early stage?

When I was young, we'd come back from holiday and roll up our sleeves to show how brown we were. It was a recognized ritual: the browner we were, the better the holiday had been. What do we do today? The typical post-holiday ritual these days is to exclaim "I came back to 3000 emails!" The problem is, more often than not, the person you are speaking to turns around and says, "Well, after my holidays, I had 4000!" You've just been out-busied! Research by Ann Burnett shows we actively compete to be the busiest. Busy is a brand!

I tell this story to illustrate an important point: our frenetic "busyness" is not an inevitable fact of modern life; we choose to be busy. For most entrepreneurs their busyness is a badge of honor; a demonstration of their success. I would argue it's also an addiction. How long did it take you to reach for your first shot of caffeine this morning? There is a chemical component to this: our brain rewards us with dopamine squirts each time we peak at an email or text. It's a little less well known how strong the behavioral addiction to activity is -- whether or not that activity is worthwhile. In fact, in a study lead by psychologist Timothy Wilson, people preferred to subject themselves to electric shocks than have nothing to do!

So the first thing to do, to escape the busy trap, is to accept that it's our fault. The second is to focus the blame in the right place. Those who do accept blame for a perpetual state of busyness tend to put it on their lack of organizational ability. We tell ourselves, if only we could get more organized, we'd regain control. It's an illusion. We are never going to be able to organize ourselves out of the information and demand tsunami hitting us. We will never, ever get "on top" again.

So what should we blame ourselves for? Every entrepreneur can reel off a list of the things they should do: it might be to grow their social media presence, develop that new product, or hire someone. The problem is, to often these should stay unaddressed because of the daily demands of a busy business. I separate stuff into two categories: inputs and outputs. Our inputs are all the demands, messages, and expectations hitting us each day. Our outputs are the things we actually do. We have no control over inputs, so we shouldn't feel held to ransom by them. Our activity should be driven by our desired outputs, by what we want to achieve. We are right to feel bad when all our good intentions to work on our should-dos -- things we know will make a real impact on our business -- have been procrastinated away by the wave of inputs hitting us. We can let go of the guilt for still having thousands of unopened emails; we are right to feel guilty if all our outputs are externally driven, and so we fail to drive our business forward. Unless we stop trying to do everything, we will never achieve anything!

Which takes us the topic of prioritization. Most entrepreneurs and business leaders I work with can articulate what their big priorities are, but few seem to stick to them -- the day-to-day demands of their business get in the way. Why is this? I think it's a lot to do with the way we make decisions. To use an analogy: I hate buffets! I approach the table piled high with food, and I choose moussaka, chicken curry, and steak pie. This happens because I ask the wrong question. I ask whether or not I'd like moussaka, then chicken curry, and then steak pie. Since I like all three, the answer is nearly always yes! So I end up with a plate piled high; a mess that I would immediately send back to the kitchen if a chef served it. Instead, Chip and Dan Heath suggest I should ask which. Out of moussaka, chicken curry, and steak pie, which would I prefer? The same is true in business. The fact is, there are few things we do on a daily basis that aren't useful. So when we ask whether or not we should answer those emails, or go to that meeting or return that call; the answer will nearly always be yes. However, if we ask which of all the activities facing us would be most valuable, we'll get a very different answer; and we'll make better choices.

Why do you think it's even more important for someone running a small business to avoid the busy trap?

There are two characteristics of entrepreneurs that make gaining mastery over their busyness particularly challenging: their bias for action and their passion for their customer. These characteristics are good, but they can have a toxic effect on business if not controlled. More than that, many small businesses fail to grow because their founder is unable to moderate these traits.

Entrepreneurs have a bias for action, almost by definition. Many people dream of running their own company; but only those willing to take action on that dream become entrepreneurs. This bias for action is invaluable in the early days of the business, where the big challenge is survival. Running around nonstop, doing everything, and working through the night are all essential in building a service or product and establishing a client base. However, too many entrepreneurs persistently find themselves working in their business; not on it. They do more and more stuff, rather than standing back to reflect on the market and new opportunities. Their preference for action steals their time to think and strategize.

One interesting statistic: we are consuming six times more information than we did in 1986. However, that increase pales in significance when compared to our increase in productivity. The typical worker, aided by their technology, produces 200 times more content than they did in the late 80s. When I put these two numbers together, one thing jumps out at me: an awful lot of our activity is white noise, failing to capture the attention of our overwhelmed consumers. If you want to grow your business, your activity and productivity is not what will do it. It is your differentiation. It is only when we do things differently that we cut through in overcrowded markets; where we gain a competitive advantage. Strategic differentiation doesn't just happen; it takes time to think, to analyze the competition and understand the customer; to imagine new possibilities. Action is critical to success in any business, but unfettered, ceaseless activity can't have real impact unless it's coupled with significant time to think.

The same challenge can be found with a passion for customers. If this tendency is left unchecked, it can devolve into doing everything for everyone. I have seen too many people hamstrung by a fear of dropping the ball, missing something, or delivering late for a client. Earlier I suggested we can't do it all. Michael Porter would say we shouldn't do it all. Some activities, some clients are more important than others. We should be choosing. While this may feel uncomfortable, it's essential we do this to avoid getting sucked up into a vortex of mindless reactivity. I talk to my clients about strategic sloppiness, about learning to accept they might need to be a little sloppy in order to be strategic. There is an opportunity cost in running around trying to keep everyone happy all the time; we are not thinking or focusing on the clients or the activities that will most dramatically move our business forward.

Are there things you have learned lately that can help people manage their time better?

The big thing I've realized is that we should stop managing our time. An over-focus on time is not helping to reduce our busyness; it's making it worse. First, it's important to note, that a focus on time increases the amount of things we do in a given chunk of time. Think of how much work you get done the day before your holiday! We squeeze more activity, more tasks into our days when we focus on managing our time. But when we think about it, all this is doing is making us busier. In addition, research shows that a focus on time narrows our attention, so our choices tend to be based on what's immediately in front of us. We don't sit back and look at the big picture. So, in the grip of time we choose the urgent and trivial over the important and strategic. In other words, time management makes us busier but less effective.

Michael DeDonno and Heath Demaree found that a focus on time even lowers our performance. What's worse, the mere perception of a lack of time, rather than an actual lack of time, reduces our effectiveness. Teresa Amabile of Harvard has also shown that increased time focus reduces our creativity and problem solving ability. We think and innovate less well when we lead lives dominated by the clock: which isn't good for anyone, let alone an entrepreneur.

The fact is, in today's economy, the biggest shortage isn't time, it's attention: our attention and that of our customers. What we should obsess about isn't cramming our time with more stuff; but using our attention wisely. Simply put, we achieve more when we focus, without distraction, on what we're doing.

Here's some practical strategies to help you do this:

Kill your to-do list: To-do lists stop us from focusing on our priorities. We don't need a to-do list to remind us of our one or two biggest priorities. We use them so we don't forget the unimportant little items. Yes, it gives a degree of satisfaction slashing through tasks, but we'd almost always be better focusing on the big stuff. No small business became a multinational because of completed to-do lists! Anyway, anybody who completes their to-do list simply lacks imagination!

Have a bucket instead: The brain works best when you do one thing at once. All those thoughts, concerns, ideas, and tasks buzzing around your head are using up scarce intellectual resources, thereby reducing your thinking power. David Allen has a great suggestion: carry around a bucket. In practical terms that might be your smartphone or a notebook. Any time you notice a thought or idea buzzing around your head, capture it in your bucket. This isn't a to-do list, just a way of getting things out of your head so you are free to think better. At times of your choosing, look at what's in your bucket and decide what you want to do with it.

Eat that frog: When we're on the way to work, we have some perspective on what is most important. However, once you open your email or voicemail you become rapidly embroiled in reactivity. Brian Tracy's brilliantly simple idea is that, on arriving to work, don't turn on your email or listen to any messages until you've spent at least 30 minutes on the biggest, scariest, and most important activity facing you. The fact is, a lot of our busy activity is a form of procrastination: putting off the tough work in favor of the simpler demands of electronic chitchat. What I love most about Tracy's idea is that it's an easy habit to build.

"Big chunk" your time: One of the aspects of busyness is the hopscotching between activities. While working on a project we get an email and respond, then go back to our original task... until the next email. David Meyer found that whenever we switch between activities we incur a cost as our brain reorients to the new task. He called this the task switching cost. In fact he suggests that switching back and forth between tasks increases the overall time taken to complete the tasks by 40 percent. So the implication is clear: do your work in big chunks of time, minimizing interruptions, and switching off your Outlook or notifiers.

Are there examples of entrepreneurs you know who have a good handle on "busy"?  What do they do?

I once watched a shocking documentary of the terrible customer service on Ryanair, a hugely successful low-cost airline in Europe. This was in the early days of the airline. At the end of the program, the TV crew gained an interview with the CEO Michael O'Leary. They recited some of the horror stories they'd discovered and asked for his comment. He replied, more or less, that Ryanair doesn't do customer service, it does cheap flights. I was struck with the brilliance of this response. It was one of the purest examples of a strategic trade-off I'd ever heard. It's important to state, in my opinion the opposite of busy isn't relaxation; it's attention focused on what matters. So when Tim Cook describes Apple as the most focused company he knows, because they say no to great ideas every day in order to put enormous energy into the few they choose, to me that's a great alternative to mindless busy activity.

Ferran Adria, founder of El Bulli, exemplifies this less-but-better approach. As Greg McKeown explains, at the height of its fame, despite getting over a million reservation requests a year, Adria chose to serve only 50 people a day. He chose quality over quantity; and I think there is a lesson for us all there. In fact, he also closed the restaurant for six months a year, to give him time for creation.

Taking the time to think is crucial for entrepreneurs, especially if they want to grow or innovate in their business. It was on an extended holiday in Hawaii, for example, that Marc Benioff first dreamed up Salesforce. His time on a beach allowed him to stand back and think. Jeff Weiner is a successful entrepreneur who builds time to think into his day. He famously wrote about the importance of scheduling nothing into his calendar; making sure there was between 90 minutes and two hours a day scheduled for reflection and thought. Weiner says "as the company grows larger, as the breadth and depth of your initiatives expand -- and as the competitive and technological landscape continues to shift at an accelerating rate -- you will require more time than ever before to just think." So he chooses to not be held to ransom by an overpacked schedule, and creates the space for nothing. He admits this felt like an indulgence at first, but rapidly became a crucial factor in his, and therefore LinkedIn's, success.

Warren Buffet might not fit the typical mold of entrepreneurs, but he runs a relatively small business. He once called his investment strategy "lethargy bordering on sloth." Central to his success is not making trades, not being caught up in a frenzy of trading activity that squeezes out thinking time. Instead, he sits back from the market, does less, and achieves more. It is estimated that 90 percent of his wealth is due to only 10 investments!

Do you feel devices like the Apple Watch help or hinder?

The simple answer is both. I'm a big fan of technology, but not of the way most of us are using it. On the plus side, devices like the Apple Watch are brilliant tools to monitor ourselves. In his brilliant work on mindlessness, Brian Wansink noted that prisoners tend to get fat. Not because of the great food in jail, nor a lack of exercise, but because they don't wear belts! The lack of the daily reminder of a growing girth meant people ate more and gained weight. Further research shows that people who weigh themselves every day lose more weight than those who only do so once a week. It turns out self-monitoring is one of the best ways to manage our behavior. The Apple Watch and other wearable technologies offer amazing apps to track our activity. I don't think we're close to tapping the potential offered by wearable technology to help us achieve our goals.

On the flip side, I worry the Apple Watch is yet another distraction that will further split and scatter our attention. At present, people look at their phones every six minutes; and are distracted at work every three minutes. We know it takes about 25 minutes to get back on task after a distraction. So the ready availability of email and messaging via the Watch, the notifications of incoming messages, may not be helpful. One recent study found that, even if you ignore it, just hearing a notification from your phone reduces your performance on the task at hand. Hearing that ping or ring pulls your attention away from what you're doing. This is possibly why, just placing your phone on the table in a cafe, makes the other person like you less: they know you will be distracted and so less present with them.

Will we be able to resist the silent vibrations and stay focused on what we're doing? Research into temptation found that we are in the grip of temptation 25 percent of all waking minutes. However, of all the temptations we face, the hardest to resist are the lures of busy (we are better at resisting sex and food!) Further research into those with unusually strong willpower found they weren't any better at resisting the chocolate cake when it sat in front of them; they were just a lot better at making sure chocolate cake never got in their fridge! They build better habits.

One of the core principles of managing attention is to build habits that reduce your distractions, to allow you to focus and think. So, my advice on the Apple Watch and similar technology is to be deliberate and be intentional about the functions you use. Turn off the unhelpful notifiers, and get monitoring the behavior you want to foster.

Is it OK to be busy for stretches when starting a company?

It's natural to be busy at the start of a new company. Those first few months are critical for survival, and the last thing you want is unnecessary overheads and costs: so you do everything yourself. Periods of complete immersion in the rush of frenetic activity on a new enterprise can be amazingly exciting and fulfilling. It can be a relief as well to finally get your teeth into the cut and thrust of running the business after all that dreaming and planning. So go for it; busy away! In addition to the comments above, the only further comment I'd make is this: get some mentors. It is amazing how quickly habits and patterns of thinking get established in a new business. Once established, some of these can be self-limiting. I was involved in a mentoring project recently for startups. Almost without exception, these entrepreneurs realized that their view of their business was too narrow. Some launched new products, some reframed their ambitions, some entered new markets. Find people you admire and trust. No matter how busy you are, schedule time to meet them to look at your business from the outside. Course corrections in a company's direction are easy in the early stages; but much harder once your culture is established.

Published on: Sep 28, 2015