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  • Phil Marsland

What are you doing with your time?

Updated: Jan 31

I have long been a fan of Thoreau. Not the quirky investigative TV personality. No. I’m talking about Henry David Thoreau.


He lived from 1817 to 1862 in Massachusetts and was an essayist, poet and philosopher. At one point in his life he lived for 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in a cabin by Walden Pond to “live deliberately”. He published vast works and is somewhat of a quote machine, perhaps a little behind the more famous Einstein and Churchill.


I mention him because I came across a quote of his which helped me to change my professional life:


“Its not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”


It struck a chord with me at the time as I was surrounded by ‘busy’ HR people dashing around being busy and important, full of stressful lives and frustrations at people “not listening to them”. It made me think about what I was doing too, and its value.


It made me examine what I perceived my role to be and how this matched with what I was actually doing. It made me think about the value of what I was doing. It made me depressed.


In HR being busy administering process and control was once en vogue. And sadly in many places it still is. More enlighted businesses have long ago left this behind, and focus on value, not self created busy hours each day and impressions of importance. With my team, frustrated with their workload or struggling to get airtime with their business customers, I would often point at Thoreau’s quote on my wall and paraphrase it to “busy doing what?” This really helped us to focus on our purpose, actions and the value that we were adding. It helped us to act purposefully in an aligned way with organisational needs and our own values.

This questioning of actions and purpose also applies to business leaders. There are so many pressures, so many considerations, so many plates spinning, that busyness is a habit. Busyness is powered by reactiveness, response to stimuli. To phonecalls, meetings, emails, people pitching up at your door. This knee jerks your response to these threats. ‘Must read that email, must be on top of things, must have an open door policy, must fill my day with meetings and then work long hours to catch up!’


Now I’m not saying that the busyness of business does not need to be attended to. What I am saying, or asking, is how often do you slow down the pace? How often do you stop reacting, breathe a little more deeply, pause, engage higher thinking powers to reflect on what you are doing, what your people are doing, and what could be better?


Reactiveness, thoughtlessly is highly likely to keep you where you are, at best. Pausing and thinking is a different cognitive process. Creativity and change is a different process.


I remember vividly a conversation that I had with Production Director along these lines. It was mid way through our working time together which had started in difficulty but evolved to one of mutual respect. He was a proper Yorkshireman, with the facial hair and beliefs to match! A trained engineer and man of action. Our conversation was the result of working together to improve the culture and engagement of his people. It had been successful and he was ‘enjoying’ the benefits and recognition by being less reactive, controlling and involved. The problem was that he didn’t enjoy this, he was hands on, and didn’t know how to fill his days with slower thinking. Didn’t know how to be more strategic and more of a leader rather than a manager.


I did what I could to help. But someone needs to either want to change out of organisational necessity or personal desire. I’ll leave you with your own imagination as to what happened.


We all have that choice.


My final thought to you all though is how often do you step back and really consider your role and how it shows up in your actions. And how often should you do so? Or put another way:


“Busy doing what?”

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