Why Being Busy And Doing More Can Mean Achieving Less And Losing Purpose

Tony Crabbe is an author and business psychologist with an expertise in working better for greater professional success – he’s been the go-to guy for some big beasts in business, from nimble founders to corporate behemoths. So RISING was surprised when he told us that the biggest challenge for high-achievers isn’t being able to do more – it’s actually that we’re not very good at doing sweet FA. We quizzed Tony to see what he meant…

RISING No one likes to think they’re clomping around like a droid extra in Star Wars, so why are we becoming machine-like when working?

TONY CRABBE ‘Our technology so far has made us more machine-like, and better at doing stuff that machines are good at doing too. Machines are optimised for doing more repetitive activity. They're good at being always on, at producing in a steady flow, consistently. You don't design a machine to be creative or imaginative. The whole industrial revolution was about trying to produce more in less time. Of course the machines helped us do that, but the people that are operating those machines then get judged by the same yardstick. Really, the primary capability of management is how to get people to do more in less time.’

RISING Sounds like doing more in less time is good for business – what’s the problem?

TC ‘Well, your brain works best on pulses of intense activity followed by recovery time. It doesn’t really work on this steady, staid pattern of efficiency that machines operate on. It’s a bit like going to the gym; we can do bursts of activity, but then we need to catch our breath. It’s the same with the brain, but because we've taken this machine metaphor to business, people almost feel guilty for taking breaks. You get people bragging about working through breaks. People often say, “I’ve had no time to think today,” and actually that’s supported by research from Microsoft that finds 30% of workers aren’t doing any thinking each day. Fifty eight per cent are doing less than 30 minutes.’

RISING What about all the lifestyle hacks to maximise our personal productivity – aren’t they useful?

TC ‘The point is, because we're so focused on doing more and more, we’re not taking the time to recover and therefore think. As Davos says, deep thinking, creativity, and genuine connection and empathy are going to be the core capabilities in the future. Every one of those is undermined by this machine-like, productive focus. Fundamentally, it doesn’t spark anything, and it doesn’t give us a chance to think or operate, because we’re so busy lashed to our technology.’

‘People have more choice than they actually believe – it’s just they're making bad choices in the moment’

RISING OK, we can see where this may happen in organisations with broken structures, but what about founders and those with their own projects?

TC ‘What we find is, when people are bombarded with what I call the ‘porridge of more’, where more is piled on top of more is piled on top of more – people find it hard to choose which is the thing to focus on. When there’s so much stuff, all you do is put your head down and plough through more and more, as opposed to actually sitting and pondering, which is what we know is associated with creativity, with imagination.’

RISING So we’re actually sabotaging our own quests to find meaningful purpose?

TC ‘Our psychology tends to make us choose for the easy over the hard at any given moment. We tend to choose relatively mindless activity rather than stuff that’s going to propel us and create meaning. Meaningful activities are almost always hard. The problem is that we have very little self-awareness. You ask somebody: “Why didn’t you make progress on the stuff that matters? Why didn’t you pursue those meaningful things?” They will never say: “You know what? I just faffed around doing lots of stuff. I tended to choose the easy over the hard all day.” What they’ll say is: “I got deluged. There was so much stuff I had to do.” We actually start wrapping ourselves up in this veil of helplessness. Telling ourselves that we haven’t got any choice, because that tells us that it’s OK we’re not pursuing the stuff that matters to us. Whereas what I find is that people have more choice than they actually believe. It’s just they're making bad choices in the moment.’

‘When we’re alone with our brain, that’s effectively the intellectual digestive system’

RISING You’ve spoken before about the brain needing more time in the ‘third state’ of its default network – why don’t we tend to spend time here and what happens?

TC ‘If we’re in ‘do’ mode, being alone with our brain feels wasted time. If we’re in hedonist mode, and are into being entertained, it’s not very appealing because it’s boring. But we do know – from psychology – that when we’re alone with our brain, that’s effectively the intellectual digestive system. All of this stuff that we’re consuming, these ideas, this information… It’s only when we give the brain a chance to be off-task that it starts making sense, and making meaning.’

RISING Let’s say I want to enter the third state – do I need to book a meditation retreat for that?

TC ‘You don’t need to meditate to trigger the default network, you just have to do very low-level activity – driving a car with no radio on, and just allowing your head to wander; standing in an airport security queue without reading. If I’ve been working for two or three hours on a book I’ll often just do a 40 minute walk up the hill and back. I’ve almost primed my brain with a whole pile of interesting thoughts and ideas, and then I just switch off and go for the walk; the number of times that insights occur to me on that walk unprompted! For most people I work with, if they’re not already doing mindfulness, it's a big ask to do it. I think it's much simpler than that. It’s just about building more low-level activity in your life that allows your mind to wander.’

RISING What about when we are ‘doing’ – is there a better model than ‘dog chasing its tail’ that we can use?

TC ‘What I call attention management: the day-to-day habits that persistently help you to bring your attention to the problems and people that matter. That’s the opposite of busyness; in the chaos and the noise of life, to be able to persistently bring attention to what matters, whether it’s people, conversations, or problems.’

RISING Sounds promising – what does attention management look like in real life?

TC ‘The thing about the way attention works, it's got three components. The first is, it's got a direction. If you think about a flashlight, it points in different directions and it swivels depending on what’s going on. While we might be very clear about what matters to us, and very clear where we intend to focus, life will get in the way. One of the things that's really important is to have some simple habits that persistently redirect your attention back onto the problems or people that matter. For example, successful writers and scientists tend to have an early morning routine. They'll spend the first three to four hours every day, writing, before they do anything else. Clearly, for a lot of us in an office, you can’t just sit alone thinking deep thoughts for three or four hours, but I think there is something in psychology – we talk about pre-commitment. If the first time you choose what you’re going to do that day is when you’re sat in front of your computer for the first time, you’re doomed. And we know that the brain gets dumber as the day goes on, so front-loading your day with the more intellectually demanding stuff, and putting more of your meetings into the afternoon, helps too.’

RISING Got it: plan ahead and no reflex emailing first thing – what’s the next point?

TC ‘The second one would be getting really good at concentrating. Let’s say you put aside two hours to work on an article, but at the same time you’re flipping in and out of Google with a ton of noise in the background. That two hours isn’t going to be particularly productively spent. It's a habit of how do you get into the right headspace, and how do you create an environment that allows you to concentrate for the times when you need to focus really deeply. It may only be one or two hours a day, but find those times to go to a library, go to a coffee shop or a private office. Then the third one is just minimising the amount of distraction in our day, and turning notifications off. I read one study that suggested that we touch our phones 2,500 times a day. I worked that out, and even in the evening, that works out at roughly two-and-a-half times a minute. That’s just bonkers and we know that unless we switch some of these things off, we’re not very good at resisting the temptation of e-mail communication, or WhatsApp.’

RISING So are you seeing attention, rather than busyness, becoming a way to measure success?

TC ‘Attention is starting to become recognised as a topic of strategic importance. Microsoft in the Netherlands are running a programme where they’re completely reimagining their culture around ‘how do we optimise for attention?’ because they recognise, if they want to thrive in a digital environment, they need better quality attention from their people. That doesn’t happen automatically through technology.’

WHAT NEXT? Make room in your day to surf the default network. It can be as simple as, after eating lunch, leaving the building, turning off your phone and going for a 10-15 minute walk. Let your mind wander and you’ll free your brain to process your day creatively – who knows, inspiration may just strike…