‘I’m Busy’ Isn’t a Badge of Honour

It’s common within Australian business culture for people, when asked the question of ‘How are you going?’, to respond with something along the lines of, ‘I’m really busy’, or ‘flat out’.

This might be a reflexive response to avoid having to provide a more substantive answer, or it may be bluster to hide the fact they are anything but busy. Mostly, I think the response is given in the belief that “busy-ness” implies importance, worth and value. I think this is misguided.

When I hear somebody say they are busy, I tend to interpret it as:

  • I don’t know how to delegate, so I’m doing everything myself.
  • I’m disorganised and can’t structure my days.
  • I’ve failed to prioritise and eliminate extraneous activity.
  • I’ve actually got nothing to do, but I don’t want anybody to find out.

Being busy is not a badge of honour. It’s a cry for help. Either you’ve got too much going on, or not nearly enough. Either way, there’s going to be a lack of focus on the projects and activities that really matter, and deliver true value.

Customers don’t pay for busy-ness; they pay for value provided. A customer doesn’t care how much work went into something; they care if it solves their problem.

If you find yourself busy all the time, don’t accept it, and don’t feel good about it. Identify how to eliminate, automate or simplify the tasks that are eating away your days. Gain back some time that can be put to better use, such as long-term planning, blue-sky thinking, or relaxing by the pool.

People are not machines. Our lives should be balanced. Sacrificing some busy time for a chance to pursue enjoyment, self-development, or diversification is a trade worth making. If you’re not busy, these alternative activities will fill your time in productive ways and build knowledge and capability over time. If you’re too busy, rebalancing and jettisoning the things that don’t add value will help you to concentrate on the things that matter.

Roald Dahl’s Work Environment

Roald Dahl’s books brought me hours of enjoyment when I was a child. There was little that could top the excitement of reading one of his books that would, of course, be illustrated by Quentin Blake. He created a world into which I could immerse myself, no matter how fantastical the setting might be.

Now, via Jason Kottke, I’ve had an opportunity to see, in the video embedded below, the environment in which Dahl worked, and to him him speak of the mindset needed to create such amazing works of fiction.

There are concepts arising in this video that have started to again be considered relevant in today’s modern world as being helpful in improving productivity and performance.

Highlights from this short clip include:

  • The need to immerse himself, for around 4 to 5 hours per day, in the work, and be away from other things. This reflects perfectly the concept of ‘deep work’ as recently brought into public consciousness by Cal Newport. It takes time, focus and the avoidance of distraction to reach a zone of high productivity. This place is rare in the modern workplace. Making time for extended periods of focus can represent a huge competitive advantage over the competition.
  • The simplicity of the tools. No computers, typewriters, productivity methods. Just paper, pencil, a basic desk and a thermos of tea. The tools don’t make the work. They are, however, customised to his needs.
  • The necessity for play. Play is again considered relevant and useful in improving productivity and well-being. Dahl spends time with friends playing snooker on a regular — and scheduled — basis. I have no doubt it released stresses from his mind and left him fresh to focus on writing when it was time to do so.
  • The smoking. Okay, so that was an unknown negative at the time. We’re doing better on that count.

In Customer Service, Genuine Interactions Matter

Our family recently travelled to Bali for a holiday break. It was a week of relaxation at the tail end of a year that has been pretty crazy, and a 2019 that we expect will be even more hectic.

When you travel with kids, conversations can move in varied and interesting directions. Our 7-year old boy took a particular interest in the toilets that were installed throughout the hotel we were staying. The brand — TOTO — is one seen all over the world, but less so in Australia. He was enthralled by the features: from automatic flushing with infrared sensors, to in-built bidets. Even the design of the loos was novel to him. He was fascinated. Next he realised that TOTO had also been responsible for the all of the tapware as well. Incredible!

As a responsible Dad, I kept the toilet banter going, egging him on to explain to me further what he loved about them. I tried to add some interesting educational angles as well. I suggested that as a Japanese company, TOTO probably took great care in their manufacturing processes. I explained how Japan was the cradle of modern manufacturing methods, and how the Toyota Production System changed the world. I’m not sure he bought into my lesson on lean thinking, though. I will have to try again in the future.

Over the length of our stay, our conversations escalated to the point where I suggested we contact TOTO directly to let them know what great work they were doing with their toilet design. He took to that idea! So we did it. My son wrote an email to TOTO Customer Service, noting how impressed he was with their toilets, and expressing his desire to have them installed in our house as well.

I figured that would be the end of it. I didn’t expect to hear back, or if we did, I assumed it would be a boilerplate response. After a few days, we did in fact receive a reply, and it was a wonderful, personal email from TOTO’s Senior Manager of Customer Service. In the email, she expressed gratitude for my son’s kind words, and also offered to send him some tokens of appreciation if we could provide our mailing details.

We replied, and for fun, included a photo of David and I enjoying ourselves in Bali.

A few more conversational emails bounced back and forth between TOTO and ourselves, and they asked if we could send a photo of David with his items once they arrived.

Within the next few week, we received an express mailed package from TOTO in Atlanta, to us in Perth, Australia. Just this concept alone was enough to blow my son’s mind. As promised, we sent another photo back with David holding onto the gifts he had been sent, and this was acknowledged by TOTO with thanks.

I see two key lessons in all of this:

  1. Always embrace crazy conversations with your kids. They’re fun, and you never know where they might end up.
    Genuine customer service — not selling — is the key to building great brand equity. I might never buy a TOTO toilet. My son might never buy a TOTO toilet. But I think both of us will be TOTO brand ambassadors from this point forward. Not because we were sent some trinkets, but because we had a genuine human interaction. We connected with a person who was obviously engaged enough in their own job to engage positively with us. If that employee is happy, then the company must have something going for it, and that’s the kind of company I want to see succeed.
  2. From a business perspective, customer service shouldn’t be about hitting sales targets or avoiding bad press. It should be about working to have people care about your brand.

So thanks TOTO, for bringing fun and joy to me and my son’s lives, and for making sure this particular Bali holiday will have a very strange and unique anchor memory.

In Flow

Some days the work just flows. Tasks feels easy, decisions are made, words transfer from the brain to the keyboard with nary a pause; and engaging with people makes you realise the world is full of interesting characters.

These days of flow are generally few and far between. We structure our days such that we have no breathing room. Alternatively, we don’t structure anything and drift through without a clear and achievable goal in mind. If we can happen to find the Goldilocks Zone between those two extremes, and establish a mindset that is engaged yet relaxed, well, I think that’s where the magic happens.

Most days, of course, the work doesn’t flow. Things are a grind and stuff fails to work out as intended.

So the days where flow occurs; embrace it, because there’s no guarantee it will be back tomorrow. Get the most out of this rare and elusive asset!

Writing versus Speaking

If I have the option to communicate through text or voice, I’m choosing text every time.

I don’t love writing; it’s not a passion. I’m more happy working with numbers, to be honest. What I am definitely not, though, is a talker.

In writing, I feel that I can more eloquently express my views. In conversation I never quite feel as agile, by comparison. It takes a lot of focus to think on my feet and maintain the flow. Add to that, the little voice in my head that is always there in the background, questioning whether the person I’m talking to is listening, if they care at all, or are they bored out of their brain. Talking comes with pressure!

When I write, however, it comes out much more formally than when I speak. I struggle to achieve a relaxed tone in my writing (as this article may attest!). I also have no indication as to whether my words have ever been read — conversations don’t have that issue.

Ironically, so much of my work relies directly on my ability to have conversations with clients. There is a discerning factor, though. In these instances, I prefer to consider myself an empathic listener and interpreter. The more I listen, the more I can understand. If I’m talking, I’m not getting to the root of the issues and concerns of the firms I am trying to help. Sure, I will add some value through some suggestions, ideas and stories, but that tends to come more easily.

Then I go away and write some outcomes and actions!

Podcasting

Podcasting has definitely gone mainstream now. There is nothing in technology more reliant on voice and speaking than podcasting. Blogging I’m comfortable with – it’s writing. Podcasting? I have been a happy listener for years, but have never been a producer.

A new version of the app Anchor has been released for iOS and Android. The app has had a pivot with its focus now being the generation of short, simple podcasts. I’ve downloaded it, but haven’t yet had a play. I will probably try recording a few podcasts, but I have strong doubts that any of my efforts would be any good.

I really don’t like the sound of my own voice. I feel bad for people who have to listen to it normally, so to record myself and have to listen to my own voice in an extended recording is confronting in the extreme. I’m also not sure that I could maintain a coherent and interesting structure while speaking. Writing is different. You can plan, outline, edit, rewrite. Voice recording requires a lot more editing effort to achieve the same, and I’m no audio engineer.

I don’t own any professional podcasting equipment. I don’t have a good mic. If I started a podcast it would be rudimentary at best. Then again, that makes me sound like the target market for Anchor.

Finally, but probably foremost, there is the issue of content. What to talk about? What to say? Why would anybody bother to listen?1

So I may, or may not, trial a podcast. I might record it, hate the result and delete it. Or it may turn out okay and I might share it to my blog. Who knows? I don’t know!


  1. To be fair, all these questions could just as easily be levelled at this blog, but here I am, typing away.