I've been wondering recently why people are so busy at work. Is work really that much more demanding than it was 20, 60, or 100 years ago? Are customer demands that much more onerous? Lean thinkers spend a lot of time trying to reduce the amount of waste in a process -- an admirable goal, to be sure. But sometimes the root cause of waste lies less in the process, and more in the mindset of the people working within the process.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Tim Kreider writes about the self-imposed "busyness" that afflicts so many people. They’re busy, he argues, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence. (To his credit, he points out that people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs don't complain about being busy. Those people are tired.)
Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.
In my own consulting, I see an awful lot of activity that really doesn't need to be done. One client spends his time -- everyday -- creating elaborate 50-100 slide PowerPoint decks for his boss. Wouldn't a single page document, or even a meeting, be a more efficient way of communicating the ideas? I've seen HR professionals crafting policies and procedure manuals that are so verbose, turgid, and unnecessarily complex that it's a wonder they have time for any real, value-added work. I've seen engineers attending meetings from 9am-5pm, but are only relevant to them for the 30 minutes from 1-1:30pm. And I haven't even mentioned the often pointless trolling through the email inbox that consumes so much of modern work life. How much of this activity is really necessary or value-added?
I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.