Busyness Addiction: What Happens When You Stop?

What would happen if you stopped being busy all the time? I have the feeling this might turn out to be a really important question, both for myself and for the people I work with, especially those in the Agile world.

There’s been a fair amount written about how being busy seems to be a kind of addiction. It’s certainly habit forming, and it’s almost certainly harmful in excess. 

But whatever your level of busyness is, obviously, isn’t excessive. Any more than mine is excessive for me 🙂

That’s fine, of course. Nobody’s likely to stage an intervention to tell us to stop doing useful stuff – to help people, to make money, to create interesting products and services, to build relationships, to save the planet…

Or are they? This week, my new friend Paul Klipp gave me a new, very credible explanation for why our addiction to busyness really matters. 

He’s a kanban expert. One of the key principles of kanban in a work team is to limit the number of things in progress at any time: to set a “WIP limit”. It’s easy to demonstrate that when you “stop starting and start finishing”, the team gets more stuff done overall.  

But here’s the thing. When you set a WIP limit for the team, one of the consequences is that some people will sometimes stop being busy. They’ll have “slack time”. That’s because Kanban optimises for getting things done, not for maximum resource usage. 

Facing the challenge of quiet time at work, people protest. “What do you expect me to do? Just sit and read a book?” they say. And Paul’s answer to that is “yes” (once you’ve offered your help to other team members and there’s no more you can do). He says at one time he used to read a book in the middle of the office for an hour a day, just to make the point.

Busy bees image

Some of the protesters might be afraid of getting the sack if the boss sees them slacking. But I wonder if the truth may have more to do with the withdrawal of their “drug”.

If we really are addicted to being busy, the withdrawal of busyness will force us to face whatever we’re running way from. That might be our “demons”, or just discomfort. I certainly find it deeply uncomfortable to be bored!

That means that if – as a manager, an Agile coach, a scrum master or whatever – you’re going to ask your staff to stop the busyness, you need to be ready to handle the consequences. You’ll want to be equipped as a “first responder” to individuals who may be in (hopefully mini) crisis at work.

That’s when some Clean Language coaching skills might come in handy!

  • Does this post resonate with you? Any examples? Or am I talking nonsense? Please comment below.

4 thoughts on “Busyness Addiction: What Happens When You Stop?”

  1. This sounds eminently sensible, Judy.

    We all think that by answering 150 e-mails a day we are being ‘productive’.

    But if, instead, we take a day off, when we come back to them 95% of the e-mails are totally irrelevant to any end product that we’re trying to achieve, and can simply be junked, leaving the remainder to be dealt with thoughtfully and appropriately, or forwarded to the right person.

    Our stress levels are thereby reduced and we can enjoy the rest of our day doing whatever, reading a book, doing a crossword or taking our surplus office furniture to a Charity shop.

  2. It’s funny how confirmation bias works. I’ve just been thinking about this for my teams and to be honest I’m struggling with it mysaelf. I’m a busy addict.. always looking for ways to be “useful”. When things are going well, the most useful thing I can do for the teams is get out of their way.. which make me not very busy… So I dive into stats and calculations that give managment a sense of involvenment and a false sense of control.
    I think the art of not being busy is going to be a tricky journey for me and I’m just starting. Hopefully when I get there (like I think I’ve mostly achieved in the last five years about not giving my opinion – I really was very opinionated!), then I’ll be able to more effective at helping the team see the true value of finishing work over starting more work.

  3. Lindsay Uittenbogaard

    Great plan to set WIP limit. I like being busy and want to be busy but needed to hear that trick to keep the life balance – thanks

  4. Hi Judy, I think you are onto something!

    It struck me when doing jury service last year that the pace of life dropped down 10-fold compared to be frenetic NHS pace. Suddenly things were moving so slowly, it seemed disorienting. Like suddenly jumping off the treadmill and feeling that the world is moving backwards.

    How could clean language coaching help? Possibly because, like no other technique I know, it expands moments of time with questions like. “What happened just before, or just after?” and so deliberately slows down time to a crawl and thereby brings attention to what is happening. Like slowly turning down the pace on the treadmill before stepping off to start on the rowing machine!

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