Within the Chinese phrase for “busyness,” there is a piece of important wisdom: The phrase consists of two characters, one meaning “to kill” and the other meaning “heart.”
This idea that busyness kills your heart is not just figurative; it is also literal. Numerous studies show that task overload, mental stress, and busyness are associated with physiological hyperreactivity, including increased blood pressure and impaired connectivity between the heart-and-brain response.
If we want to enable our innate compassion to come to the surface, we need to overcome busyness. We need to let go of the value we place on being busy and find ways to be more disciplined and effective with our time. To do so, we need to recognize that busyness is a choice. We then need to manage our time, make people a priority, and value busylessness.
Busyness is a choice
Our minds enjoy being busy. Many cultures value busyness and see it as a badge of honor. We all have a lot to do and not enough time. But fundamentally, whether we want to be busy or not is a choice. If we have ten things that we absolutely must get done today and we only have time to get six of them done, we can choose whether to experience busyness. We can choose to be overwhelmed and feel under pressure, or we can make a wise mental choice to prioritize the six we will do and stop thinking about the four important things that we just don’t have time to do today.
Time is finite. We all wish we had more hours in the day. But we don’t. If we resist the urge to feel pressured by limited time, we can make more of the time we have by lifting our foot off the gas pedal and having a more calm, clear mind to do what we can get done.
Manage time and priorities
We worked with a senior leader who was well liked by his colleagues and team. But he had a habit of being unrealistic about when he could get something done. He would often say, “I will get back to you tonight,” and every member of his team would know that was highly unlikely. He had the right intentions, and he was a smart guy. But good intentions and high IQ combined with lack of wisdom regarding time management equals poor outcomes.
Being able to realistically assess time and priorities is hard. It takes discipline, experience, and practice. This is wisdom in action. Overcoming busyness by better managing time and priorities enables us to be a wiser and more compassionate leader. This takes ruthless prioritization and disciplined assessment of time. Too many of us have a lot to do and hope somehow we can get it all done. But in the back of our minds, we know we can’t, and so the foot is still on the gas pedal, creating excessive stress. The only way to take the foot off that pedal is if we take time to be ruthless in assessing our priorities and disciplined in evaluating and managing our time. This should be done quarterly, monthly, weekly, and daily so that we always have the big picture in mind to ensure we are getting the right things done.
By being more disciplined with your time, you will find that you are able to get more of the right things done. You will also find that you may be able to get more things done. When your mind is clear, you are more efficient than when your mind is cluttered. You are a kinder, wiser leader. And you can be more creative about how to address issues and solve problems, especially those related to managing people.
Put people first
Leadership is about people. The role of leading is to take time to support and enable others to get things done. This should be where you spend most of your time. If you find that you are “too busy” to focus on supporting and developing others, you have a problem.
Take a moment to reflect on your to-do list. How many items on it are related to you doing things versus you enabling others to do things? If there are too many things in the first category, it may be an opportunity to rethink your priorities and your role as a leader.
Here is a radical idea: What if we placed more value on not being busy? What if we allowed ourselves to have more moments of “non-doing” and just being? Too many of us associate not doing anything with being unproductive or lazy. Because we are wired for activity and doing things, a natural discomfort often arises when we do nothing. Valuing busylessness is to invite and familiarize yourself with the experience of doing nothing. This experience is the mother of creativity and well-being. But before those arise, we must pass the threshold of discomfort of feeling like we are wasting our time.
Busylessness is productive inner silence. At first, it can feel of limited benefit. But after a while, we start to notice thoughts and emotions that we were not previously aware of. “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is,” Apple founder Steve Jobs told biographer Walter Isaacson. “If you try to calm it, it only makes things worse, but over time it does calm, and when it does, there’s room to hear more subtle things—that’s when your intuition starts to blossom and you start to see things more clearly and be in the present more. Your mind just slows down, and you experience tremendous expanse in the moment. You see so much more than you could see before. It’s a discipline; you have to practice it.”
Valuing nonaction can also be applied to how we lead others. Sometimes as leaders, in our desire to be compassionate, we can be too quick to act. Sometimes, not taking action can be the wisest and most compassionate thing we can do to create space for people to figure things out on their own. This requires discipline. For most of us, the easy thing to do when someone comes to us with a problem is to jump in and try to solve it. And although sometimes that can be helpful, valuing busylessness is about challenging ourselves to see what happens if we don’t take any action at all.
Adapted excerpt from Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way (HBR Press, January 18, 2022) by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter.
Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and CEO of Potential Project, a global research, leadership development, and consulting firm that partners with organizations, including Microsoft, Accenture, and others, to uncover the power of the mind.
Jacqueline Carter is a partner and the North American director of Potential Project. Jacqueline is a coauthor with Rasmus Hougaard of Compassionate Leadership: How to Do Hard Things in a Human Way and The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results.