Good Leaders Aren’t Too Busy

What’s your plan to not be busy? Can’t answer that? That’s why you’re so busy.

“I can’t. I’m busy,” I said that way too often because I thought I was building a better future for my family. It also made me feel important because I was needed. But over the years, I’ve seen how devastating busyness can become. I learned that being busy was not a status symbol. It is a warning sign that things need to change. 

“I worked 20 hours this weekend,” I overheard a coworker say to her supervisor. Her manager responded, “that’s why we have you on salary!” It was an odd response from a team that constantly made mistakes. When my team would ask reports for updates they would get the same harried response, “we’re busy!” 

I assume she thought her employee’s busyness showed how much they were contributing to the company. Unfortunately, the “I’m busy” response confirms the opposite. It shows you lack strategic focus and that you are unable to prioritize time for your team effectively. It shuts down opportunities for meaningful conversation, and it nurtures an atmosphere where lots of tasks are performed, but results aren’t achieved. Our brains need periods of incubation to be creative. So if you never see employees slacking, either they are engaging in busyness theater or not doing their best work.  

It’s easy to mistake busyness for validation. Being asked to do work must mean you’re good at your job. But the opposite of busyness isn’t laziness. It’s prioritization. Being busy is allowing others to control your time. Being intentional is sitting in the driver’s seat.

Leaders must remove the “I’m busy” term from their vocabulary. You’re capable of better. You’re creative, focused, and strategic. But as soon as you say you’re busy, you discredit yourself and lose the opportunity to demonstrate your strengths. 

What’s wrong with a busy leader? 

Busy leaders are myopic. They live reactively instead of proactively. Reactive leaders simply respond to what’s happening, being diverted from crisis to crisis. Proactive leaders make things happen. Reactive leaders push their most essential duties to the side. Hours become days. Days become weeks. Weeks become years. And years become their legacy. Leaders who react to what’s happening rarely make things happen.

To become more proactive, create systems to improve the workflow for yourself and your team. Evaluate the long-term changes that will make your organization better. The next time you’re busy, slow down. Consider the strategic importance of what you’re so busy about. This isn’t going to be easy if you’re used to the dopamine of jumping from task to task. It requires careful and thoughtful consideration each time you’re faced with a decision. 

Aren’t busy workers more productive? 

No. In a study, managers couldn’t recognize the difference between workers who worked 80 hours a week and those who only pretended. While supervisors did punish those who were honest about working less, consultants could not detect any indication that those workers achieved less or a sign that the overworking workers achieved more. In another study, “Increasing a team’s hours in the office by 50 percent (from 40 to 60 hours) did not result in 50 percent more output. The numbers may typically be something closer to 25 to 30 percent more work in 50 percent more time.”

Overwork hurts people and their companies 

Overwork also causes a host of diseases that are awful on their own but also impact the company’s bottom line. They drive up insurance costs, absenteeism, and turnover. Long hours equate to less sleep. Employees are more likely to make mistakes when they’re tired. Only 1-3% of the population can sleep five or six hours a night without suffering some performance drop-off. Lack of sleep keeps the brain from functioning properly, causing troubles with memory, concentration, and attention span. Harvard Business Review warns that “the story of overwork is one of diminishing returns: Keep overworking, and you’ll progressively work more stupidly on tasks that are increasingly meaningless.”

Now, this isn’t to say we can never pull a long day. We just can’t do it routinely. According to research, most workers can put in one or two 60-hour weeks to resolve a crisis. But that’s different from persistent overwork.

Overcoming busyness must be intentional

Many people fear downtime. We’re often frightened that if we aren’t working, we’re wasting time. But it’s crucial to understand that taking time to be mindful, reflective, and thoughtful is not a waste of time. It’s a vital attribute of being an effective leader. Deliberately trying to remain focused, calm, and strategic is helpful for many reasons, including benefits to your team. If you’re always flustered, your team will be as well, and their performance will suffer as a consequence.

Employees cannot be productive if their work environment is always panicked. Maintaining a frantic atmosphere will drain the enthusiasm of the happiest employee. People cannot be their best when their team is constantly stressed. 

How can my team be less busy? 

If you are the leader of an overworked team, your employees need your help to make their workflow more productive. Start the habit of incorporating rest into your team’s schedule. Set aside time for them to read for ten minutes, watch a TED talk, meditate, or go for a walk. 

If this is a chronic issue of overwork instead of a temporary crunch time, it’s essential to empower your workers to make decisions about their time. Use open-ended questions to distinguish obstacles that are making the most essential areas of focus unclear. Use questions like:

  • What do you understand as our team’s top priority?
  • What is your top priority?
  • What’s getting in the way of you prioritizing the right things?
  • What is your largest obstacle?
  • How can I support you?
  • When would you like me to check back in on this?

These are open-ended questions because they will help you explore unexpected answers with follow-up questions. It’s also important for you to focus on output instead of input. Clearly define success. That way your team knows where to focus making the greatest impact and may be able to delegate or eliminate tasks that don’t matter to organizational priorities.

How can I be less busy? 

Don’t seek to be busy. Seek to be intentional. Say no to the less important, delegate, know your triggers, and, my goodness, slow down. Instead of having to monotonously tell people your busy, seek to create room to make time for the times that matter. 

Busyness gives the pretense of success. However, when you peel back the layers of tasks and responsibilities, effectiveness is rare. Spend more time carefully managing, and you’ll have a far more meaningful impact on the success of your team.

Conduct a time audit 

The simplest way to understand why you are so busy is to audit what you do all day. At the end of your day, write down what you did and the approximate time you spent on those tasks. Do it for a week. You will spot the tasks that you should delegate and those you should keep.  

Time block your schedule 

Plan out every moment of your day into blocks of time. Put your to-do list on your electronic calendar. It will keep you focused on those tasks until it prompts you to move on to the next. You will still have fires to put out. Busywork and new meetings will pop up. But you can plan time for that too. 

Time blocking drives you to identify the work that makes an impact. It also causes you to combine your moments of busywork into certain times of the day rather than constantly switch between it and other work. Studies show that we lose up to 80% of our productivity when we try to multitask. 

Make plans for your team to rest. Most of us plan meetings to last the full 30 or 60 minutes, without any thought to incorporating a rest period. Be deliberate about your meetings. If they last 55 minutes instead of 60, it gives you at least five minutes to prepare for the next meeting. 

Make your time transparent 

Modeling the behavior you want to cultivate is also important. Be transparent about your workload. This clarity must extend to your non-work time too. Your team will follow your example. If you email after working hours, your team will respond then too. Put your emails on a delay so they are only received during working hours. I had a boss once who emailed me at 3:00 am. I’d respond at 3:15 am. It wasn’t healthy. 

Make clear to your team what your expectations are and practice what you preach. Take your vacation time. Don’t engage in work during that time. Communicate these expectations to your team. By being transparent about how you’re spending your time outside of work, the rest of your team can recharge.

Stop saying you’re busy

Scientific studies show why we like to boast. We experience the same pleasure sensation that we derive from food and money when we brag. Bragging about money or possessions may be seen as tactless, but it’s acceptable to brag about being busy. Bragging about being busy has become an unconscious habit for many. It’s a status symbol.

The next time you’re asked how you are doing, give an authentic answer. Instead of saying, “I’m busy!” try these options.

  • Things are great! We just started on this new project. What are you working on? 
  • We’re managing an interesting challenge right now. We just learned about a new requirement and we coming up with the best solution.

Also, if you have to delay or deny a request because of your schedule, don’t claim that you’re too busy. Nobody’s busyness is important than anyone else’s. It also doesn’t explain anything. Try these options instead: 

  • “I am sorry I cannot assist right now because I’m getting ready for the board meeting on Thursday, can I please get this to you on Friday?”
  • “I have been to five days of training in the last two weeks, so I may need to finish this project two weeks after we originally planned. Will that be acceptable?”

Think of this as the first step to better conversations with your coworkers.


Instead of valuing busy, place your value on being effective. People who believe being busy is just who they are, are often disorganized and scattered. When a manager is too busy they are not improving their teams. Supervisors who use their days putting out fires need to understand they are not acting as leaders.

You will become aware of blocks of time wasted on activities that don’t bring any value. You will soon realize that there are many things you can stop doing or do less often or delegate.

Leaders must steadily cast the vision and develop others to reach it. While leaders spend much of their time on multiple tasks and initiatives, none of them replace the need for mentoring, nurturing, and guiding future leaders toward a shared vision.

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