Friday, June 29, 2020

What are you busy doing?

It’s not a trick question. Workplaces everywhere are full of people busy doing next to nothing . . . only they don’t realize it.

It’s one of the most prevalent, but least remarked upon, problems of our information-rich age. Today’s technology and management cultures allow anyone to work away busily with every appearance of being productive—even creative—when all they are really doing is treading water. Here’s how it works.
What these people are doing is mostly shifting information around. They spend large parts of their days responding to e-mail and voice mail; they attend meeting after meeting after meeting; they watch scores of presentations and prepare still more. It all appears extremely important and productive, but when you look at it closely, what you see is an organization that spends nearly all its time swapping information from person to person, without having the time to consider fully what it contains, let alone act on it.

What is in all those e-mails, instant messages, and voice mails? Typically, requests for information or responses to such requests. You might have 100 e-mails in your in-box, of which roughly one quarter are requests to you for information, one quarter contain information that you have requested, while the remaining half contains copies of e-mails swapping information between other members of the organization.

Let’s start with the half that are cc’ed; you didn’t ask for those and probably don’t want them, but you still have to spend enough time reading them to be sure that there isn’t anything important hidden in them somewhere. They keep you busy for some time—genuinely busy—but none of that time is productive. The quarter that contain requests to you for information is going to take up another large chunk of time: getting the information, setting down in the right way, and passing it to the person who requested it.

Is that time productive? Generally speaking, you can’t know, because that will depend on what the person receiving the information does with it. In many cases, they spend time collating and combining it with information from other people, then passing the whole lot on to someone else. How useful is that? You have no idea; most organizations have computer discs and filing cabinets full of such collated data that no one has ever read or ever will read.

Surely the data that you asked for is going to allow you to do some productive work? Well, maybe. You may have asked for it because you have to produce a report, complete with tables of collated data, for your own boss. What will he or she do with that report? My guess is skim over it, pick out one or two bits of information, and add those to another report that he or she is doing for someone higher up the hierarchy.

Strangled by data?

The curse of information technology is that it is so very, very powerful. It can collect, collate, and analyze data on a scale people fifty years ago would have thought impossible. It can pull data from all around the world, seeking out sources that would have been totally invisible to people back then. It’s a wonderful tool, with almost limitless possibilities. The problem comes, not from the technology itself, but from the use people make of it.

They overwhelm themselves in more data that their brains can handle, afraid that some missed or omitted piece might be the one that proves to be vital. They commission reports inches thick (far too much ever to read in the time left over from shuffling all that other data around), then base their choices on summaries of summaries of summaries: the one page of information that would have been all that their grandparents would have had available; all that the human mind can process in the five minutes or so allocated to making the decision.

And all those meetings? They mostly consist of people “sharing” information that they have spent hours collecting and preparing precisely to share in that meeting. Whom do they share it with? Those who will either ignore it as irrelevant, question it if it doesn’t show what they want, or use it to produce still more presentations for future meetings.

That’s how people can end up extremely busy, yet doing nothing more than moving information around for the sake of generating more information and more demands to move it somewhere else.

No time left for what really matters

I’m not saying information can’t be vital, but in this welter of data it’s hard to see that anyone is allowed the time to do the most important task of all: to sit and think carefully and deeply about what even a tiny fraction of all this data is revealing. We’re placing such demands on our brains that stress and mental are causing mental overload. We have all this wonderful data; but we are so confused, tired, and distracted that what we do with it is crippled.

Today, everyone is running around, working their tails off, shifting information like never before, and imagining that they’re being productive. They’re really not. They’re busy, sure, but they no longer have time to be thoughtful or genuinely creative. They have become slaves to the information mill, grinding out more and more data to increase this overload and generate still more data requests.

Just because you can do something, it isn’t always something that you should do. We are all at the mercy of the limits of the human brain to absorb information and process it in useful ways.

Even the smallest of today’s personal computers can process more data in a few moments than most people can process mentally in a lifetime. For example, you can send a file containing the equivalent of all the words in the Bible and the plays of Shakespeare and War and Peace to someone anywhere in the world at the click of a mouse.

So what? It’s technologically marvelous, but is it really useful?

That’s the question we need to be asking ourselves. If a normal human being can’t use the data to produce some sensible outcome, why waste the time collecting, analyzing, summarizing, and sending it? It will make many people very busy, but it’s hardly the stuff of useful work.

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My most productive time is when I am doing something else - such as getting a coffee or walking to lunch.

This is when my unconcious brain usually solves the problem I am working on.

Trick is, it looks like you are doing nothing - but in fact you are solving the problem you have been slaving over for the last few hours!

If only more think time was allowed.
You are absolutely right, Andy.

The trick is to be concentrating on something completely different — not thinking about the problem one tiny bit — so that you get out of the way of your own mind.

People today are so obsessed with making sure that everyone is doing something visibly associated with the actual problem that they prevent them from solving it, as often as not.

Keep reading, my friend.


This one touches both my heart and mind.

I spend countless hours consulting with organizations and asking the question, "Why are you doing this?"

More often than not, the issue is about reams of data, endless analysis, and prolific powerpoint.

The result, more often than not, is "Show us how to package the data better, analyze it more completely, and make good presentations."

Good Lord. It's great for the revenue stream but not very satisfying when viewing the purpose of one's practice as helping others get to the heart of an issue.

I'm reminded of the Jack Nicholson line, "You want the truth? You can't handle the truth."

Information is becoming an end in itself vs. a means to a practical solution.

And I'm with Andy. Although I'm obviously writing from a computer, I'm also sitting on the back porch gazing into the woods and watching the deer. This is where I come to allow things to get sorted out.

The office only works for paying bills and doing checklist tasks.

Heres' to taking it slowly...
Thanks for your comment, Steve. I love the picture of you sitting on the back porch with your computer.

You're right about information becoming an end in itself. It's sad to see it happening, especially when it's so unnecessary.

Keep reading, my friend.

And you know what is even sadder? We are teaching this busyness to our children. Every day they are busy at school, going from one subject to the next, with barely any time to consider, discover, uncover, recover, invent, explore, inquire, ponder, envision, let alone dream or ... THINK! And then after school it all starts over again, one activity after another -- learn how to and how to and how to, with the focus on doing. Except that really learning to DO takes TIME!!! Our most precious resource and we have stolen it from childhood.

I really like a colleague's suggestion to stop reading any email that is a CC -- someone will tell you if it really is important. And someone else recently wrote (was that YOU, Coyote?) about going back to an all-paper planner and simply refusing to even look at the company's vast and invasive electronic "calendar" where time can be hijacked with no regard to your think-time requirements.

Keep writing!
Thanks for a great comment, Michelle. I couldn't agree more about schools. The poor children are never even given time to play and be children, for Heaven's sake!

I like your suggestions about CC'ed e-mails (a curse of our age!) and electronic calendars open to all. You wouldn't allow other people to choose your meals for you, or what you wear, so why allow them to hijack time in your day without asking you first?

Keep reading, my friend.

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