One of my favorite ways to open a keynote speech is to talk about how, in today's workplace, it's possible to be so busy that you never actually do anything. I bring it up jokingly: if we're all so busy that we can't do everything we should, and if we all accept that some work won't get done because of this overload, then the logical result is that the people who are best at looking busy will get away with doing the least work.
Unfortunately, it's not really a joke. Nods, knowing glances, and subsequent comments by audience members confirm that many of us work with someone who fits this bill perfectly: A person who uses busyness as a screen to avoid work. And now a recent article on The Onion, "Work Avoided Through Extensive List-Making" further confirms the reality behind the gag. Satire is only funny when based on reality, and The Onion authors did a remarkable job creating a piece that's at once hilarious and depressingly on-point.
But the real reason I love this particular story -- The Onion's fictitious tale of Julie Smalley, who is too busy prioritizing to do any work -- is because it illustrates not only the problem of being "too busy to work," but also one of its major causes. Though many people hail prioritization as the answer to workplace overload, I contend that it's often as much a cause of the problem as it is a solution to it.
That may sound sacrilegious, especially coming from an author purporting to be a thought leader in workplace productivity. At the very least, it's counterintuitive: I've asked numerous people how they respond to workplace overload, and one of the most frequent responses I get is to set aside time, prioritize the current workload, and push back on less important items. It's common-sense, it's well-accepted, and it also happens to be a strategy I use myself from time to time.
So what could possibly be wrong with prioritization? Consider three strikes against it:
First, prioritizing is reactive, not proactive. Effective prioritization begins with a list of things that's too long to do and includes some unimportant ones. That means that at the individual level, you can only start to prioritize in a meaningful way after you've been wasting your time and energy, at least a little.
Second, the widespread use of individual prioritizing leads to wasteful behaviors. If I need you to do something for me, I can just ask you to do it. But if I know that you're constantly prioritizing and evaluating your workload, I have to make sure that I not only ask you for what I need, but also make you understand that what I want is more important than what other people want. This leads to an arms-race escalation in which I -- along with anyone else who's talking to you -- work continuously to find new ways to emphasize my importance over everyone else's. As a result, you have to continually find ways to discount these overstatements in order to keep making accurate priority tradeoffs.
Third, prioritizing is time consuming to begin with, and it becomes even more so as you get busier. The secret to doing any sort of work in increasing volume is to find ways to achieve more output with the same input. Automation, batch processing, and skill development are simple examples of scalable approaches, allowing a person to create more results with the same amount of effort. The process of prioritization, however, is not scalable: The busier you are, and the more complex your tasks, the more difficult and time consuming it becomes to prioritize them. It's simply not a scalable strategy.
Now I'm not saying all prioritization is bad. I'm speaking above about prioritization of work at the individual level, as a response to overload. Certainly, at the group and organizational level, it's necessary to make have priorities and make proactive priority decisions: Your organization can't launch every product imaginable, or upgrade every system it has, in the same year. At the beginning of a new round of work -- and, for that matter, at any other time that it becomes clear that the group can't do everything -- proactive prioritization of group objectives is absolutely necessary.
I also concede that the reactive, individual prioritization I describe above is sometimes necessary. When you find yourself overwhelmed, you may need to be a little like Julie Smalley, locking yourself in your office and sorting through the demands on you. But to say that this activity is the answer to overload is like saying that mopping the floor is the answer to leaky pipes. It may work as a clean-up mechanism, but it's no solution.
In fact, if you reconsider the three strikes above, you'll realize that prioritization is actually quite insidious. It creates a vicious cycle, or what those of us with engineering degrees call an "open feedback loop": You wait until you have too much work, then you start prioritizing, the prioritization creates inflated claims of importance and takes up your time, making you even more overworked, at which point you redouble your prioritization efforts, ad infinitum.
The escalation never ends, and the logical conclusion is that you ultimately become Julie Smalley: so busy that you aren't doing anything. And whether this happens consciously or unconsciously is beside the point. You'll notice that it isn't clear from The Onion's article whether Ms. Smalley is intentional or simply incompetent in her avoidance of work; to her coworkers saddled with picking up the slack, it doesn't much matter.
The alternative, unusual as it may sound, is to teach people what you're doing proactively so they'll stop asking you to do other things. Here's a video explaining how you can accomplish that. If you're endlessly prioritizing and sorting your to-do lists, I suggest that you -- ahem -- make watching this video a priority.
Say No Without Saying No