A friend once pointed out that business is derived from the work “busy,” not from words such as “produce” or “profit.”. Since business is not guaranteed to be productive or profitable, business is a very good name for business as it hides within it the very demon that can bring down any business: “busyness.”
As it turns out, this demon is as subversive as any vice because as Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen in “Make Time for the Work That Matters” (Harvard Business Review, September 2013 edition) state:
We instinctively cling to tasks that make us feel busy and thus important . . .
They found knowledge workers averaging 41% of their time going to activities that didn’t need to be done and offered little personal satisfaction. These were activities that they didn’t want to do, but yet, they still did. In addition to feeling busy, workers felt drawn to helping someone by doing these undesirable tasks.
Still, let’s ask this: What makes us feel more important, tasks at which we are proficient or ones we are not? Just because we can do something well doesn’t mean it’s productive or profitable for our businesses. Conversely, what we aren’t proficient at could be very productive or profitable. This is especially true of implementing new things we’ve learned.
Even though Birkinshaw and Cohen recommend being more conscious of such activities and delegating, it’s very easy for us to rationalize them especially if they feed our ego or assuage our anxieties of worth to the team. By feeding these self-interests, they influence our decisions in a unconsciously biased way. They compound when managers do little to help us feel good about our work.
As with any demon, it hides. Busyness is no different. It hides in every business. Look no further than the word for the clue.