“I hope you kids see what a silly waste of resources this was.”

“He worked really hard, Grandma.”

“So do washing machines!”

One of my favorite exchanges in one of my favorite movies comes from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  Clark W. Griswold has just completed the big reveal of his 25,000 house-light display, except for one problem.

They don’t turn on.

All that effort, wasted (at least until his much-smarter wife turns on the power switch)!  The reasons behind Clark’s wasted efforts are myriad, but the exchange captures the essence of a problem many of us face.

Don’t be busy.  Don’t work hard, like a washing machine.  Live effectively.

A few weeks ago, I ran into a colleague from my last team, and as she was literally running down the stairs, I asked her how things were going.  “We’re so so busy!” was her reply.  She’s not alone – over the past few months, whenever I ask someone the same question, it generates an automatic response.  How was work?  “Busy”.  Not a single person has said, “Engaged”, or “Happy”, or “Bored as f*ck”.  OK, maybe a few people are bored as f*ck.

But why busy?  What do we lose by clinging to that stock response?

We all deal with the ceaseless demands of daily life: emails, meetings, changing priorities, more emails, crying kids, barfing cats, a phone call here or there.  It creates a constant state of busy-ness that can overwhelm.

Constantly selling the idea of being busy to one another is a way to quickly validate our work day.  I’m important – see how busy I was?  See?

Even the word “business” implies that we should be doing things.  All the time.  According to the Pages dictionary I’m using, the sense connoted by the word “business” in Old English was ANXIETY.  What’s another word for anxiety?  Stress.

The American Psychological Association noted in 2010 that 69% of Americans report work as being a significant source of stress, 41% feel stressed during the typical day, and 51% lose productivity because of that stress.

From the flight of stairs above, I asked my colleague if she was being effective through all that busy-ness.  She had no reply, but the distinction is crucial.

We can easily fill our days with tasks  But to be truly effective at what we do requires that we slow down to process new information.  We have to think things through, and think about connections, and ponder alternatives.  We can’t do that if we’re constantly busy.

By constantly reminding ourselves and others of how busy we are, we are losing our ability to think, to truly connect with each other and our work, and we are turning our days into endless streams of to-do lists.

We need to equip ourselves with tactics for avoiding trap of busy-ness.  I like the following:

  1. Make a plan for the day.  It takes all of 10 minutes to write down what you need to accomplish.  If you think you can’t spare 10 minutes, then you REALLY NEED to spare those 10 minutes!!
  2. Block out time to think.  No one is 100% extroverted.  I like to book myself private “appointments” throughout the day just to ensure no one bugs me.  Or just leave the office.  What will they do?  Fire you for taking a walk?
  3. Turn off your email.  Not all day (although I like that idea!).  But you can certainly shut it down for an hour, right?  If something is so important that your boss needs to reach you immediately, trust me, she’ll find you.

These tips won’t reduce the number of things you need to accomplish during the day, but it will help you refocus your attention without feeling like you’re shirking responsibility.  And it will help you lessen the stress you feel at work, having to manage all those tasks.  After all, that email about the refrigerators being cleaned out probably doesn’t warrant your immediate attention.

So tomorrow, when someone asks you how you’re doing at work, decide to be effective instead of merely being busy.  Working hard is great, but it’s for washing machines.  Humans decide to be effective.