So sayeth the Internet.
These posts catch my eye because in Start-Up Charity Land, there are two phases: not busy, followed by busy. (After this, apparently “Start Up” ends and bureaucratic lethargy and institutional rigour mortis set in - but I’m not there, yet, so I can’t say for sure.)
In the “Not Busy” times, no one knows who you are. Your phone doesn’t ring. You read and respond thoughtfully to every email that comes your way. You scoff at your predecessors who can’t make time for the public and call them “out of touch”. You’re broke, and that scares you, but you have the freedom to do what you think needs to be done each day and that’s kind of nice.
As your organization grows, you start to save the thought-work for weekends or early mornings, because that’s when you think best. There are fewer distractions, so you schedule the really important stuff for “later”. The phone rings a bit, more emails come in, and your team is growing. It’s nice, and you treasure the time you have away from the hum of the office to do the “big picture stuff”.
The next thing you know, you’re busy. There is no later. The phone always rings. You get more emails than you could possibly keep up with in any authentic, meaningful way. And you know what? It feels really awesome.
It means that people care about what you’re doing, what your organization is doing. It means that the world is creating a place for you. It’s everything you ever hoped for when you started out.
Until it’s not.
Everyone I know is busy. Everyone I know believes they are spending their time on things that aren’t as important as they should be. And you know what? It’s time to stop blaming ourselves.
It’s not a cultural thing. It’s not a narcissistic thing (though that’s the underlying current of all of those articles). It’s a not a workaholic thing. It’s a 21st Century professional thing. And the solution isn’t on a therapist’s couch.
With the exception of some bootstrapping startups (who are, by definition overworked), I don’t know a single person who works for an institution that is well-resourced, where staff and jobs and time are allocated in a way that allows for ideal workflows or where there is space to hear themselves think.
I know lots of people who are working for institutions that are struggling: private sector mergers and consolidations, government bodies undergoing significant staffing reductions and funding cuts, and even more commonly, younger people trying to make a living freelancing or working hourly jobs all create situations were people are being asked to do the work that two or three people would have been doing 20 years ago.
Throw in technology like email and mobile devices that send messages whizzing at you 24/7 asking for more time, more ideas, more feedback, and it is a perfect storm of stimulation.
I don’t think society is broken or that technology is bad, or anything like that, but I am increasingly thinking that priority-setting is the most challenging skill to develop. You can’t just “say no” to everything that seems like it might be too much work, because some of those things may be the big break you’ve been working for. You can’t plan everything perfectly in advance, because you never know what a day is going to bring. And you can’t only cultivate the exact right relationships with the exact right people at the exact right time, because you (probably) aren’t a sociopath.
And yet, every minute that you give to a person, an idea, a feeling, or a task is a minute that you take away from every other person, idea, feeling, or task in the world.
There is no later - that’s the lesson that you learn once your organization starts to grow. If you’re growing, then the world expects you to be busy. It will send more people and ideas at you than you can handle. And we just have to learn to deal with it and to forgive those around us when they struggle, too.