Are You Too Busy to be Good? - Michelle Gibbings

Many people are crossing the street in a busy city

One of my favourite books from childhood was Richard Scarry‘s Busy, Busy World, closely followed by What Do People Do All Day?.

All the characters lived in Busytown. Busytown looked like a whole lot of fun. There was always something happening. Lots of activity, personalities and drama. As a kid growing up, I wanted to live in Busytown.

I never imagined that adulthood would look much like that fictional world and that the word ‘busy’ would factor so much into our working day.

Think about it for a minute, when you bump into a colleague at work or friend in the street, and they throw out the standard greeting ‘Hi, How are you?’, how do you respond? Your answer will likely include the word busy – ‘Yeah, good, but busy’, or ‘Okay, but lots going on‘.

Being busy feels typical, accepted, and also expected. You know the saying – ‘If you want something done, give it to someone busy’. Being busy is positively associated with productivity, success, achievement and progress.

On the downside, being too busy leads to the usual culprits of lack of sleep, heightened stress, overlooking important details, and not spending enough time with friends and family.

What may surprise you is that busyness can interfere with ethical decision-making.

Research shows that when people feel pressed for time, they can make less prosocial decisions; that is, decide in a way that is less connected with the welfare of those around them.

In the early 1970s, Social Psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson examined how time pressure affects behaviour. They invited students to participate in a series of experiments. In one of these experiments, the students were told to move from one building to another. The testers varied the amount of ‘urgency’ in the message.

To move between the two buildings, the students had to go past someone slumped on the floor and moaning.

The researchers found that the more urgency in the message, the less likely it was for the person to stop and offer assistance. At the same time, many of those who didn’t stop appeared agitated when they got to the next building. This was because they were conflicted about their desire to help and the instructions to go to the new building quickly.

We can fail to see what is happening around us when we’re busy and preoccupied with timeliness. We can fail to help and offer assistance because we’re so focused on getting the task done.

This has important implications for leaders because our working world isn’t slowing down any time soon. And deadlines and time pressures are exacerbated during times of disruption, uncertainty and change. So you want to be conscious of how time pressures are impacting your decision-making and actions.

Consider and challenge yourself:

  • Is your day busy and reactive, or deliberate and responsive?
  • Are you paying enough attention to what is going on around you?
  • How conscious are you of the decisions you are making?
  • Do time pressures impact how you decide? If so, in what way?
  • What steps can you take to create space in your day to pause, reflect and decide wisely?

Taking time out is always hard when you are in the midst of your working day, but it may save you time in the long run.

It reminds me of the quote from the famous US basketball coach, John Wooden “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?“.