Let’s get real. Too many people are in the business of busyness.
In fact, a crammed-full calendar is sometimes regarded as a badge of honor. Living on the edge of burnout is too often accepted as “just the way it is.”
What’s up with this? How did we ever get on this deadly and counterproductive merry-go-round? How can we get off?
Answering those questions is the mission of Juliet Funt. She’s CEO of a company called WhiteSpace at Work. She helps leaders clear a path through the daily piles of tasks so they can reclaim “white space”—a chance to take a strategic pause for thinking and refocus.
Juliet is an evangelist for unburdening people from low-value busywork so they can unleash their full potential. She works with organizations ranging from Spotify, National Geographic and American Express to Costco, Pepsi, Wells Fargo and Hyatt.
The outcomes of “whitespace” efficiency should be attractive to workers at every level:
- Increased awareness of the cost of busywork
- A culture shift toward a smarter use of work hours
- Reductions in email, reports and other wasteful touch points
- More productive (and fewer) meetings
- Smarter use of technology
- Improvement in work/life balance
Rodger Dean Duncan: It seems that a lot of smart people are paying a lot of other smart people to do unnecessary work. How did we get to this point? Where’s the disconnect?
Juliet Funt: It’s the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of “nonsense work.” If growth and scale are the mantras heard in the hallway, then quantity will always be the thing that wins a badge of honor.
When quantity is what you worship, it manifests in everything. More email, more meetings, more reports, more boxes checked off—trying to signal our value. But activity and productivity are two different things.
Another reason is actually best demonstrated in an old episode of my Dad’s show—Candid Camera. One of the most famous stunts of this first-ever reality television show was titled “Face the Rear.” Actors rode an elevator and waited until a real passenger entered. Then, on cue, the actors turned and faced the back of the elevator. And the subject did, too. The actors faced left. And the subject did, too. They took off their hats. And the subject did, too.
This social conformity is a very relevant piece of the equation of unnecessary work. If everyone else takes work home when the workday is over, we do, too. If everyone else checks email all day long like a woodpecker, we do, too. The feedback loop is constant and reciprocal. Lastly, there is an aspect of brainwashing that’s at play. Over time, smart people at work become habituated to illogical activity.
Duncan: You say that 80% of organizations believe their employees are overwhelmed with information and activity, but only 8% have programs to address the issue. Where do you get those numbers, and what do you think are the implications of such findings?
Funt: The 80/8 stat is from Deloitte. And it paints a striking picture of what’s going on in companies regarding overload. The implications are that three productivity obstacles are likely present in the middle 72%—ignorance, complacency, and timing issues.
Ignorance can be solved with empathically written employee surveys, the results of which lead to cracks in complacency. The qualification and dollarization of this waste and exhaustion can also “catch the ear” of executive strategy drivers who can make a difference in alleviating pain.
But part of the problem is imperfect timing, that it’s not yet in vogue to prioritize this particular problem. We are so, so early in the mainstreaming of simplification that only early adopters and true future thinkers make it a priority.
Duncan: What do you see as the human cost of living on the edge of burnout?
Funt: Our health and family connections. Our access to meaning in work. Our problem-solving, strategic, and innovative “best of mind” contributions—the list is long. If we translate this tolerated misery into corporate speak, we would call it lack engagement, falling morale, and organizational fatigue.
And busy keeps you numb. When we get in the habit of skimming fast and hard across the surface, the skill of digging down atrophies. Our minds stay occupied jumping over each hurdle and if we have any sadness, anger, resentment, grief, or confusion within ourselves, these feelings stay nice and quiet. And numb is all-inclusive. If we can’t feel the bad, we can’t drink in the joy.
Duncan: What can leaders do to avoid losing employees to burnout?
Funt: It’s actually a fairly direct progression once committed to. First, you must make a simple decision that every hour of your team’s time is one you care about. Then, get curious about the truth of the average employee experience of waste. Query, survey, observe and lower your defenses during the intake phase. Next, as you devise a strategy for change consider a patient approach that leaves enough time for a change in mindset to proceed a change in skillsets. This is so critical.
When companies ignore this order, they tend to jump right to an isolated intervention such as No Meeting Friday or an email workshop without first teaching mindset and philosophy. It’s like planting a seedling on cement. It dies fast.
The first month everyone adheres to No Meeting Friday. The second month everyone starts saying “I know it’s Friday, but I really need to meet with you.” The third month the only thing left of No Meeting Friday – is that people make fun of it whenever they have a meeting on Friday. To avoid this cycle, it’s important to always provide context before behavioral adjustments. And vulnerability from leadership is an additional secret sauce of organizational change. The leaders that are truly evolved always cop to where they’ve been personally complicit in a problem before solving it.
Duncan: Letting go of the unnecessary is a challenge for many people. What kinds of mental filters do you recommend for helping with the perpetual battle for simplification?
Funt: It’s not a surprise in the age of overload, that our greatest strengths can overflow and become liabilities. We’ve identified four main drivers that fit this pattern. They are all assets that have overgrown their pots and we call them the Thieves of Productivity. They are Drive, Excellence, Information, and Activity.
They lure us into a pace and pressure that actually can reduce our effectiveness. Drive becomes hyper-drive, excellence becomes perfectionism, information becomes information overload, and activity becomes frenzy. However, they can be combatted with a simple set of four questions that map back to each of them.
- Is there anything I can let go of? (Drive)
- Where is good enough, good enough? (Excellence)
- What do I truly need to know? (Information)
- What deserves my attention? (Activity)
The questions work at the individual level, the team level and the organizational level and are the cornerstone of what we call a Reductive Mindset. When we commit to being Reductive, we develop habitual ways of thinking where we repeatedly surrender, let go, renounce, and strip away the unnecessary.
Duncan: How can people get in the habit of using what you call white space to reboot their exhausted minds?
Funt: Let’s define it first. White space is the open time, the stepping back, the strategic pause; it’s the oxygen that allows our efforts to catch fire. It gives us room to innovate, to strategize, to reflect, to recuperate, and to think. It is, as you say, used to fight exhaustion (recuperative use) but also has a constructive use— as a necessary vacuum into which deeper thinking can flow on strategy, creativity and problem-solving.
One of the big shifts people can make towards it is to begin with the tool called “The Wedge.” Instead of perusing impossible stretches of white space in a packed day, we look for tiny opportunities to insert an interstitial second or two- a little wedge of white space. These sips of open time can be used to reboot, to gain objectivity or to digest the intense portions of information we’re fed all day.
Beginners would also benefit by creating a new relationship with what I call “hallucinated urgency.” No matter how hot the latest crisis or fire drill may seem, folks can be taught as a team to check that labeling and actually question the time sensitivity and motivation of each seemingly urgent request.
Duncan: When people begin to eliminate busyness from the workplace, what are some good uses for their newly rescued discretionary time and attention?
Funt: Well, at first there may not be a quid pro quo—save 5 minutes here and gain 5 minutes there because of old mental habits. Stop a busy person and it’s like stopping a blender. The “blender stuff” is going to keep spinning for a while. Initially there may be no insight, clarity, tranquility, or sense of open space – just an aggressive flurry of sublimated thoughts.
After a while, as this gift of time becomes dependable, the mind relaxes and gets in the habit of it. At work the time can be used for gaining perspective from yourself and your contribution, for entertaining innovative ideas to which busy has previously barred the door, or for connecting more deeply with the why behind your actions. Those who use it wisely will gain authority over their schedule because they can plan it more slowly, and they often find their executive presence increases because their nervous system is simply calmer.
Duncan: You recommend that people “make an appointment with stress” during the workday. What does that mean, and what’s the benefit?
Funt: One of the most vexing ways we lose white space is when it’s hijacked by worry or ruminative thought. When something is weighing on you, large or small, it’s likely to be the first think that pops into your mind whenever you have a free moment. And our minds can roll a negative thought around and around like hard toffee. It can make us almost afraid to pause. So, it’s great to make an appointment with those thoughts.
Let’s separate out emotion, which we always want to entertain in real time. When emotion comes knocking, pause, step away and let it arrive. But stress, usually seeded in rumination and worry, can be scheduled. The instruction is that when something’s weighing upon you, schedule a time to visit that heavy thought only once per day at a designated time. When the topic returns at any other time, remind yourself it’s already scheduled and try to move off.
When we’re gripped by fear about fundamentals (health, finance, or looming challenge), we may have to speak back to the voice of worry dozens of times per day. But I come from a long line of worriers and nothing I’ve tried has helped as much as this habit.
Duncan: The idea of creating white space at work certainly makes sense. How can this approach be used to greatest advantage in the home and family?
Funt: That’s so important. At home, white space provides an ability to be more present for the moments of our lives and, if we’re parents, allows us to be beautiful role models for over-busy kids. Ultimately, it helps make sure we don’t miss our lives.
With white space at home we build inviting spaces into which can flow two
types of pleasure. “High joy” (experiences that make you gasp) and “deep joy” (experiences that reach down into your belly and warm you). High joy experiences can include surprise, risk, passion, physicality, exertion. Deep joy experiences can include sensory pleasure, intimacy, gratitude, peace and pride. Without open time – we may just run past them all.
Duncan: What question do you wish I had asked, and how would you respond?
Funt: I wish you’d asked how everything we’ve discussed shifts post-COVID. I’m currently more worried than ever about the mental health, focus, and fatigue of average folks without white space. Their heroism continues but the adrenalin was gone on month three.
My concern is intensified by articles floating around praising the productivity improvements of the work from home shift. They’re misleading. If Sally made eight widgets per hour before, in an eight-hour day she would make eight widgets. But if a crisis destroys any semblance of her balance, and suddenly she works eleven hours a day and makes eleven widgets, that’s not increased productivity. That is sacrificing Sally to the circumstances. Productivity per hour is the only metric that matters to me.
Excitingly, though—as the return to the office occurs, organizations have a spectacular opportunity to re-start with new ways of working, new habits and mindsets. It’s a fresh page on which we get to write the new rules. Paying special care to waste, culture, and thoughtfulness will buy incredible rewards, now more than ever.
Therefore, this may be just the time for more of that 80% to join the 8% and create different ways to get (real) work done.
For additional ideas on personal productivity, see “Doing More With Less: Avoid Fake Work”