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By Mark McCartney, ABP Conference Speaker 2013

Time 2-01


Stop for a moment and consider everything that is going on in your professional and private life.  Now think about all the options you have in terms of how you spend your time.   Even choosing a brand of coffee at the supermarket requires energy and time due to the sheer range of options available.

Being busy is easy.  But as former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell said, “…avoid the busy bastards …”.  Why? Because they will waste your time and energy due to their lack of focus.

What is more, ‘busyness’ is damaging to mind and soul.  It leads to burnout and reduced levels of wellbeing.  Knowing that you will never complete all the tasks on your To-Do list causes a lot of stress and anxiety.


During the last three years I’ve explored in depth one central problem which besets the workplace – why do intelligent, successful people find it so difficult to identify and then work only on a few priority tasks?

One reason is that they are always busy.  I coach senior executives from across the world. The majority of them suffer from punishing work schedules.  Yet few of them will commit the time away from the battle to question what does and doesn’t count.

During the workshop at the conference I will provide time for you to stop and think about your two or three priority goals and how much time you spend on them.   Then by exploring your values, beliefs and assumptions about work you will begin to challenge some of your habitual working patterns.  For instance, do I really need to spend my week in back-to-back meetings?  Is it my lack of self-discipline that really explains my email addiction?

I believe that each of us will need to take far more responsibility for understanding how we work best.  For instance, how good is our concentration?  Because ultimately what each of us brings to work is the ability to focus on completing those tasks which enable us to make the greatest contribution to the overall objectives of the organisation we work for.  We are not paid simply to be busy!


This is why during the workshop I will be asking you to explore your own work patterns and how well they serve you.  For instance, I have discovered that I struggle to fully concentrate on a task that doesn’t provide the kind of immediate gratification you get from say check Linked In for any updates.  Knowing this enables me to change how I work by, for instance, ‘ring fencing’ periods of time to fully focus on one task at a time.

So how can you ensure you avoid the ‘busyness trap’?

Here are some practical steps you can take which are about ‘stopping’ and getting away from all the frenetic activity which is a prerequisite for better understanding your work habits:

  • Walk – take a 10 minute break three times a day.  Go outside and do something different and avoid taking in any information.  You will return more refreshed and, critically, will have given your brain a chance to re-energise so that it is working optimally when you return to your desk
  • Micro break – stop for a few seconds before you start the next task in order to reduce the likelihood of subconscious habits such as reading online news.  For example, when I am feeling unfocussed I will often find myself checking my hotmail account without being consciously aware of making a conscious decision.  Create a simple ritual to ensure you don’t simply slide into the next action without even being aware.  I simply take a sip of water
  • 15-minute daily planning – find a quiet place and take a blank page and write down the three absolute must-dos for that day.  This precious thinking time which many people avoid, preferring to launch straight into email processing as soon as they turn on their computers, will decrease the likelihood of you being busy for the sake of being busy, which in our information saturated world is so easy

During the workshop I will not be giving you lots of new tools, most of them are widely known anyway.  Rather I will be encouraging you to look deeply and more honestly at your work habits and patterns.   What I will give you is a simple process to help you to reduce busyness and to increase focus.  That has to be worth some focussed time!

About the author

Mark Mc Cartney -01Mark is  European specialist in helping leaders and managers to improve productivity in our digital age.  He is an executive coach at The University of Oxford’s Säid Business School, Cranfield School of Management and The Executive School, Universität St Gallen.

If you’ve enjoyed this article and would like to hear more about Productivity in a Digital Age at the 2013 Annual ABP Conference on Saturday 5th October, Wokefield Park, Reading.

To find out more about the conference and Mark’s session click here for more information

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