The conversation goes like this, “How’s it going?” “Busy, but it’s a good busy.”  “Beats the alternative. “”Yep.”

For anyone who relies on customers or clients or any form of transaction to make a living, busyness is genuinely a good thing. It’s confirmation that what we provide to the marketplace fills a need, is useful, has value, and in many cases, helps us make a difference in the world.

As a coach, I spend a lot of time with successful people who want to be better leaders. If you were a fly on the wall in my sessions, you’d hear that lack of time is one of their biggest challenges.  So why is it that based on 360 feedback I conduct with their peers and direct reports, some leaders “make it look easy” while others fall victim to their calendar, commitments, and responsibilities?

As we unpack the challenges and create new strategies to manage the collateral damage that busyness can inflict, clients learn to be on guard for signs that their busyness is becoming “bad” busy.

1. You don’t start your day with intention.

Firefighting is not a time management technique, no matter if things get done.

Starting your day with intention means having an aim and a plan.  It involves creating a positive ritual – something that you are drawn to and provides a host of benefits (much like brushing your teeth).

Those who don’t let busy turn into “bad” busy follow a plan that includes…

  • Reflection. Frame your “to-do” list as a “get to do” list to cultivate gratitude for what the day brings, no matter how routine it may seem.  Deepak Chopra starts his day by asking himself, “how can I have the most joyful day.”  Studies show that starting our day with positive thoughts rewires our brain circuitry and conditions it to see obstacles as challenges to overcome versus threats to defend and protect ourselves against.
  • Connecting to a purpose. It’s helpful to ask ourselves regularly… “What will I do today to advance the goals I’m trying to reach? “This can be something as simple as reviewing your quarterly sales goals. It might be taking time to reconsider a troubling situation and ask yourself how you might approach it through the lens of your core values. Priming yourself each day helps your subconscious to do its magic.
  • Identifying the day’s priorities.  We can’t manage time, but we can control what we do with our time.  Identify 3 specific tasks based on the importance that need to get done.
  • Plan for tomorrow.  Once you’ve wrapped up the day, look ahead to the next. Look at your calendar and make sure that you have time for the tasks you need to accomplish.  If there are time gaps, write down what you intend to do, like going to the gym or running errands. Even though you might not work in an environment that mandates a break… schedule them in.

2. Your edges are sharper.

Some personalities react to additional responsibilities with a “let’s take this challenge head-on” approach that can frustrate, discourage, and upset those they lead.  Instead of equipping and encouraging their team to handle the increased workload, they find themselves dictating, demanding, and fault-finding.  People stop asking for help or avoid conversations.  None of this is very productive when performance and productivity are needed the most.

In the book, The Power of Full Engagement, the authors write that there are four kinds of energy: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, and that energy is the central currency of high performance. Every thought, feeling, and action has an energy consequence.  I use this framework with clients whose negative emotional energy gets revved up when they’ve taken too much.  I ask them to think about themselves as a type of a boat and pay attention to the wake they are creating as they operate in their hyper-busy mode. It’s powerful imagery that quickly makes a point.

Are you tipping boats over with your wake?  

3. “I’m busy” becomes your excuse.

We all go through phases in which our commitments outweigh the hours in a day. Month-end. A product launch.  The 24 hours before we are supposed to go on vacation.  We are genuinely busy and have good reasons why.

But sometimes we miss meetings, don’t prepare as we should, or forget a significant milestone, and when called out, our defense becomes, “I’m so busy.”

A recent feedback provider for a client stated, “He comes across like he is the busiest and most stressed person in the organization. If his excuse for his behavior is he is too busy or stressed, he needs to do less.” Wisdom.

Thankfully my client recognized that he was at the center of his busyness storm and is working toward improvement.  Though he can’t control the volume of tasks associated with a business that’s growing at 20%, he can ask, “Is this the highest and best use of my time? “The upside is that he has been able to empower his team further and allow them to learn and contribute in meaningful ways.

When business is good, the busyness will increase. Vigilant leaders stay focused on the practices to manage the overwhelm.

What are signs you know you’ve got bad busy, and what do you do?