On a weekly basis, with a variety of people, I have a version of this conversation:

I ask: How are you?
They respond: Crazy busy right now! It’s…

  • the end of the quarter, and…
  • almost time for our big launch, and…
  • already less than a month before our national sales meeting, and…
  • hectic with all the travel I have to do, and…
  • a slight variation of any of the above, and…

If I could just get through these next few weeks, I’ll be much better.

The problem with this conversation is that it happens over and over, often with the same people. One busy season is quickly replaced with another. My clients may “get through” the end of the quarter, but they are inevitably bombarded with new demands for the next quarter. They might wrap up a few weeks of extensive travel, and assume that returning to the office will be more restful, only to find that they are overwhelmed with follow-up calls and emails.

Many executives and their teams never escape the “I’m busy” phase. What’s worse is that they start to wear their busyness as a badge of honor. They seem to say, “I’m busy because my job is very important.”

Startup culture reveres the image of the perpetually busy entrepreneur. We love stories about people who sacrificed everything for the success of their business—the sleep deprived, no time for a personal life, running on coffee and a dream-type of people who work 90 hours a week for years to start their business.

However, there is a very high cost to living in this constant state of busyness:

  • Stressed out and tired employees
  • Lack of creativity and new ideas
  • High turnover among burned out staff/people who realize there are better ways to work

The habit of treating busyness as a virtue is deeply ingrained in many work cultures. Take a look around your office: are people expected to read and respond to emails at all hours of the day? Are teammates powering through an illness at their desks, instead of taking time to rest and recover? Does your team routinely stay late/come in early aside from efforts to meet occasional deadlines? Is taking vacation time viewed as a luxury for people with less important work? If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, your team is suffering from a busyness problem.

Now that you’ve diagnosed the problem, here are three steps you can take to shift your culture, from valuing busyness, to valuing productivity.

1) Define The Desired Outcome

The answers we get are only as good as the questions we ask. Shifting workplace culture starts with asking ourselves and our teams some tough questions:

  • What outcome are we really looking for?
  • What metrics can we use to track that outcome?
  • Is the work we do every day aligned to those outcomes?

It could be a 10% increase in sales, faster turnaround on customer service, an increase in website traffic, or whatever goal you choose to focus on. Figure out what specific metrics will help you best measure your progress, and implement a strategy for tracking them. Be as specific as you can with your desired outcomes.

2) Identify Where You and Your Team Spend Time

One of my favorite exercises with teams is to give everyone two minutes to write down the ten things they do at work every day (you can try it now! I’ll wait). When the list is finished, I follow up with the question: “what is your real goal?” People often spend their time doing busywork that doesn’t contribute directly to the goals of the team or organization.

With that in mind, go back to the ten things you just wrote down and pick the two things that will have the biggest impact on your goals, and focus your energy on those tasks.

This exercise uses the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule, to identify high value tasks and projects.

3) Clear the Rest

What about the other 8 things on the list? Take a hard look at them and decide what can be eliminated, delegated, or executed quickly. Learn to spend less time on tasks that don’t directly contribute to your goals.

I recently ran a one hour session with a very busy, high performing sales team where we did this exercise. A pattern quickly emerged in their responses: they were all participating in the same conference calls, and getting cc’d on emails that they didn’t need, wasting valuable time and energy.

I applaud them and their manager because they committed to making real changes right on the spot. They eased back on the schedule for conference calls, and started only cc’ing relevant team members for each project.

One month later, I walked back into the office, and was enthusiastically greeted by one of the sales reps. She couldn’t wait to thank me for leading a conversation that reduced her stress, eased her constant “busyness,” and allowed her to focus on achieving (and exceeding!) her monthly goals. Her success was the result of a mindset shift, away from thinking of busyness as a virtue, and towards focusing on the work that matters, that paved the way for better ways of working.

In order to change in meaningful ways, we need examine our attitudes for destructive beliefs, get clear on what matters most, and engage our teams in regular, meaningful conversations.

That is, if you’re not too busy to take the first step.