Work Smart, Not Hard: Why We Need to Avoid the Busy Trap

by Carmen Voilleque, co-author of Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership

Carmen will be presenting “Work Smart, Not Hard: Make Strategic Decisions That Will Save You Time and Money” on Tuesday, August 7th from 12 PM to 3 PM.

MercyCorps NW

Working smarter is easier said than done.  We all know too well how quickly the everyday tasks of running a business (and often also a family) can pile up, mundane needs like groceries, doctor appointments, and putting oil in the car seem to fill in every available space we are not working and the urgent continues to take priority over the important. So we just work harder. We take on more. We shoulder the burden, because there seems to be no other answer. And doing “fun” things like a weekend barbeque or going to see a movie seem like a luxury – or worse, just another thing to do when we are already so tired.

Whether your information of choice comes from the New York Times, NPR, Twitter, The Huffington Post or Facebook you likely read something in the last week about Tim Kreider’s essay “The Busy Trap”. Think of it as the much criticized overprogramming for children – except for adults. The Busy Trap prevents us from reaching our biggest goals, staying healthy, spending time with family and friends, and fully developing our potential in work and in life.
Kreider speculates that this obsession with being busy is an attempt to combat a feeling of emptiness or lack of meaning in our lives. That may be true for some – but not all of us. Kreider admits that his hypothesis is based on a mid-level working class that is operating from a place of privilege in comparison to those struggling to make the smallest of ends meet.  But even for those of us that have the “time to be busy”- I think there is a lot more to why we are so easily lured into the Busy Trap.

Why many of us fall into the trap

In my work as a consultant I have the opportunity to witness the inner workings of all sorts of American businesses – big and small. And, there is one thing that almost every person I meet has in common – the intense pressure to look “busy”. It’s not as much about actually being busy than giving off the perception that you are “up to your ears in alligators and handling it like a pro.” We tell people how busy we are, we brag about how much we do in a day, how many fires we put out and how much email we get. We try to one-up our friends and partners – sharing the events of our day with a tone of exasperated martyrdom.

We do this because, let’s face it, being busy is a status symbol for most of the working world. It’s a badge of honor and we are constantly comparing our level of busyness with our peers to see if we are in line.  It’s the new rating system that is driving our working culture across the country.  And it’s literally killing us. As people pile on more and more stress, everything suffers – diet, exercise, family – and we all know how the story ends.

How the busy trap is hurting American business

The impact on our health, family and friends is reason enough for individuals to resist the Busy Trap – but American business needs to take the Busy Trap just as seriously. When employees dedicate the vast majority of their brain power and creativity to the art and science of “looking busy” the organization loses.  Looking busy usually requires typing frenetically on a keyboard or giving ourselves thumb cramps on one of today’s many devices of communication. Sure, we might be buying things on eBay (the most visited website at work) or playing Solitaire (another popular work pastime) – but you don’t know that.  If all else fails, you can always check your 2000 daily emails, attend a bunch of meetings about other meetings, or create 70 PowerPoint slides for your next management report. As a last resort you could fill out your expense reports. While these activities will do wonders for making you seem busy, they do very little in helping individual workers or organizations reach their Evolutionary potential.


Carmen E. Voillequé is the co-author of Evolutionaries: Transformational Leadership – The Missing Link in Your Organizational Chart with business partner Randy Harrington, PhD.  Ms. Voillequé is also the CEO and co-owner of Best Practices Media, co-founder of Strategic Arts and Sciences, and Principal consultant for Extreme Arts & Sciences.  Her background is in education psychology, adult learning, and organizational development. She also has over 15 years of experience in public speaking and facilitation and is nationally respected for her ability to provide advanced strategic planning for complex partnerships, systems, associations and networks to achieve significant organizational change. Ms. Voillequé has narrowed her focus to strategic planning, change management and the development of high performance teams in the last five years of her career. Her varied experience allows her to bring a combination of fresh perspectives and deep knowledge to her work with private, non-profit, and public organizations.

Learn more about how to work smart and avoid the Busy Trap at Carmen’s upcoming seminar – Work Smart, Not Hard: Make Strategic Decisions That Will Save You Time and Money – on August 7th.  Reserve your spot now!

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