Have you ever worked with people who repeatedly missed deadlines and meetings because they were too busy? Maybe they offered minimal input on your projects until near the end and then frantically bombed your inbox with late-night revisions, or maybe they were distracted on calls with you because they were multi-tasking in the background. How did it impact you and your team when they said they were too ‘busy’? Increased frustration? Elevated stress around missing your project milestones? In your own work life have you put off a task or project because you were too ‘busy’ to dig in and finish it?
Staying organized and managing time effectively can be daunting for anyone. In some instances, this lack of structure results from deficits in executive function; the set of cognitive processes responsible for keeping us on time, organized, and managing our resources to achieve goals. However, it’s much more likely that your challenge stems from trouble with prioritization.
Items on your to-do list and meetings on your calendar are not all equally important, which is understandable, but don’t hide behind ‘busy’ when you really mean something else.
Try this: think of a recent request you turned down because you were ‘too busy’. Now replace ‘busy’ with ‘it’s not a priority’ in your reply. Sounds different, doesn’t it?
I don’t have time for a working session this afternoon = Working on this deliverable isn’t a priority for me.
I’m too busy to follow-up with our team for their feedback = Collecting team contributions is not a priority.
Assigning priority to tasks and activities and acting accordingly is a delicate balance. People who are most successful at this often pull from these five strategies:
Use simple systems: at The Spur Group, we practice a simple, daily system called “Today is Over When”. This involves making a realistic list of tasks and actions that must be finished in a particular day, and also gives managers an early warning system when risks come up. Read more about our methodology in Ray Rasmussen’s blog: The lessons of failure without the failure - Part 1.
Delegate/collaborate/outsource: Release your need for control. By delegating to people you trust, you are empowering them while easing your own workload. If full delegation isn’t possible, collaborate with your team members and draw on collective strengths to maximize efficiency and successful outcomes. If you have completely exhausted your resources, outsource your task to a team you can trust.
Focus on your strengths: Your areas of expertise are communication and strategy but you are faced with a daunting reporting task, can you seek assistance from someone else who loves spreadsheets and formulas? Maximizing your strengths will lead to increased productivity - don’t get bogged down in tasks you hate.
Start saying ‘no’: If you cannot say ‘no’, other people’s priorities will sneak into your day and become your priorities. When you receive a request you’re not sure you can accommodate, executive coach Joel Garfinkle suggests a way to help assign priority to your task list by considering three questions: How critical is this project? Who wants it done? Why is it considered so important? In addition to establishing level of priority, this can help frame your reply to the requestor if you need to turn it down.
Stop doing: There is a difference between saying ‘no’ and actually quitting something. If you are asked to add an unmanageable task that was not already on your radar, practice using ‘no’. If you are hung up in tasks or activities that consume too much time, don’t bring you joy, or don’t get you closer to ‘done’, STOP doing them: What’s one thing you could stop doing today that would have a positive impact on your time management, health and quality of life?
For many of us, ‘busy’ has become a crutch to get out of things we don’t want to do, or an easy reply when we’re feeling overwhelmed. Consider the positive impact of removing ‘busy’ from your working relationships. By taking steps to ease your stress and better manage your workload, you will free up time to focus on your strengths and increase the quality of your daily interactions and work output.
Now that you have conquered busy, consider getting rid of the word can’t. While not as pervasive as “busy,” the limiting potential of ‘can’t’ makes it just as important to eliminate.
“Can’t” is an auxiliary verb, which means it’s used in forming the moods and voices of other verbs. It’s inherently negative, so by saying you “can’t” do something, you are casting doubt on your abilities and setting an adverse tone for whatever comes next:
I can’t write a good customer-facing message.
I can’t complete this sell sheet.
We can’t take on this project; our schedule is full.
If a client or colleague brings you a complicated problem and your first reaction is “I can’t do that”, it’s unlikely they will contact you again next time they need assistance. Instead, when you’re formulating a reply in your head and it includes “can’t”, try to recognize it as a warning flag. Pause - even for a split second – to avoid answering in an unintentionally negative way.
Using the same examples as above, reframe them to identify your real challenge and remove “can’t:”
I am having trouble landing the right message. Will you please block some time for us to talk it through and brainstorm?
I need more source material in order to make this tool effective. Is there a subject matter expert who will engage with me to share some insight?
This week is booked, but we have availability for a meeting next Tuesday. Since that shortens the timeline, will you please send materials in advance so we can get up to speed before we meet?
Notice that the re-framed replies include proactive requests in addition to identifying the barrier. This lets you better communicate the steps or resources you need in order to fully overcome the ‘can’t’ obstacle.
“Sometimes we think we can’t do something because the whole idea of it seems too large. We skip the small steps in our head and only focus on the end. Before you say you can’t do something, rewind and slow down a little bit. Focus on what the first step is, then the next. Take it a step at a time, and before you know it you will have done something you previously thought you couldn’t do.”
Why do I think it’s important to get rid of busy and can’t? Because they create roadblocks. As consultants, we are tasked with solving problems and opening doors for our clients, which starts from having the right mindset. Being able to approach a complex task with an open mind, free of obstacles, increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. Freeing your communication from negativity also creates opportunity for more meaningful connections with those around you.
As you focus on removing these two words from your business vocabulary, what could happen if you practice the same exercise outside of work?
Erin is an experienced business operations professional with 10+ years in sales, marketing, account management, and go-to-market execution. She is adept at navigating complicated operational infrastructure and implementing the business strategies required to make impactful organizational change.