How leaders can keep busy-and get nothing done!

How leaders can get in control of how productive they are.

Lowell Cooper is a general vice president for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

The burden of busyness is viewed among us as a badge of importance. Leaders are frequently introduced at meetings with words of thanks for "taking time out of their busy schedules..." No leader, as far as I know, has ever denied being busy. We accept the tribute even when it might be more ethically correct to refute it. I for one have never contested such an acknowledgment.

Current leadership culture suggests that one is obligated to cultivate a reputation for being busy. A former colleague advised me that to do this one must carry a briefcase and walk fast.

The real question, though, is whether or not a leader gets things done. It is rather easy to be busy and, for many of us, the less you get done, the more busy you will be.

The rest of this article takes a look at the organizational foundations for getting things done. If what one wants is to be, or to appear to be, busy all the time, then this article will help but its real purpose is to deal with get ting things done. As you work your way through the article, be on guard against the occasional attempt at tongue-in-cheek humor. Let's begin by pointing out that productivity arises from the purposeful organization of time, self, space, and material.

Ignore any one of those four components and you can keep busy without accomplishing much. After all, one should remember that "Work is the greatest thing in the world, so we should always save some of it for tomorrow."1 Threats to mere busyness come primarily from any sustained effort to take control of time, self, space, and stuff. It may be worthwhile to examine each of these threats more closely.

Getting control of time

Noted Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore enjoyed telling audiences about the sitar player who came on stage to present a concert. After considerable time the master of ceremonies announced the close of the con cert. In dismay the musician exclaimed, "My opportunity is gone. I spent my time tuning the instrument and the song I came to sing is left unsung."

Leadership positions are the organizational intersections for information, consultation, decisions, and communication. Consequently there is a prevailing tendency, call it suction if you will, for a leader to become the victim of other people's agendas, interests, and expectations.

The technologies of our day provide count less opportunities for staying engaged and unproductive. Just sign up on the Internet for notification of breaking news, turn on the switch for instant messaging from your friends, share your cell phone number widely, answer every call as and when it comes, and keep your office door wide open so that any passersby will feel welcome and regard you as very accessible and person-centered. This way you may appear to be the man or woman of the moment, but in the end, that may be all.

A sense of overwhelming busyness will certainly diminish if one goes to the trouble of maintaining a calendar. To be of value in get ting work done, a calendar should allow for viewing, at least one month at a time, the schedule for all meetings, deadlines, tasks. The calendar of information needs to be portable and readily accessible.

But if the real purpose is only to be busy, one should maintain calendars in several for mats a handwritten version, a computer-file version, and a downloaded version on your personal digital assistant (PDA). This way you will need to spend a lot of time figuring out which version has the most accurate, up-todate information and which version needs to be updated and from which of the multiple sources. With just a little practice, this alone can come close to a half-time job.

A person who doesn't understand the importance of busyness will be rather careful in scheduling things on the calendar. Big tasks are broken down into a series of progressive steps. Those tasks requiring intense thought and concentration are scheduled at the most productive time of the person's day. Intervals of free time are built into the schedule. Routine tasks, like paying bills or balancing the checkbook, are assigned to regular time periods during the month. Things to be done outside the office or away from home will be clustered so that several can be accomplished with each trip.

Unfortunately the person who goes to all the trouble of properly maintaining a calendar will not experience the thrill of living on adrenaline. He/she will not likely have double bookings, scheduling conflicts, or suddenly be reminded of an imminent deadline. Such people will proceed through their daily routines with measured pace. Busy people, on the other hand, are generally wound up tight from morn till night and spring into a frenzy repeatedly throughout the day. Poor organization of time easily masquerades as busyness.

When one learns to enjoy busyness, one can hardly wait for the next phone call, email, or text message. Those who don't yet realize the value of always appearing busy impose a stern discipline on their response to phones and email. Just because the phone rings does not mean it is more important than the job you are now doing. Of course, if your job is to answer the phone, you better do so at the first ring.

People who get things done make wise use of phone messaging ask the question, leave the information, summarize the purpose of the call, and indicate when is the best time for the other party to call back if further conversation is necessary. A good secretary (if as a pastor you are fortunate enough to have such) who screens calls can really spoil the busyness of the day. The game of telephone tag is for people who like to feel overwhelmed with things that are always half finished.

Getting control of self

Equating busyness with importance is a fraud. On top of that, it's a fraud that is generally unchallenged in our age of fascination with the image of success rather than its substance. The most difficult discipline in a role of public leadership, especially spiritual leadership, is to carve out personal time for growth and reflection. The temptation is to be visible, available, and indispensable thus portraying a life of great personal sacrifice. The perception of busyness is a very thin veneer in spiritual leadership. Sooner or later one discovers that substance in public life grows out of what happens in the leader's private life.

Gordon MacDonald discovered some engineering details in an old book about the massive underground construction supporting the Brooklyn Bridge. Later MacDonald wrote these observations in his personal journal: "The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because, 135 years ago, the Chief Engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the water line. It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the water line (in a leader's soul) [is what] determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It's done in quiet, where no one but God sees.

"Today there is tremendous emphasis on leadership themes such as vision, organizational strategy, and the 'market-sensitivity' of one's mes sage. And it's all great stuff (stuff I wish I'd heard when I was real young). But if it is all about what's above the water line, we are likely to witness a leadership crash of sorts in the coming years. Leaders blessed with great natural skills and charisma may be vulnerable to collapse in their character, their key relationships, their center of belief because they never learned that you cannot (or should not anyway) build above the water line until there is a substantial foundation below it."2

Another advantage to staying busy is that it can appear so Christlike. Jesus Himself was a busy man, and a man of action. He was so busy at times that He didn't have time to eat. "Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, 'Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest'" (Mark 6:31, NIV).

Getting things done requires that there be periods of rest and rejuvenation of the soul. It is obvious, from His own life, that Jesus saw a life of action blended with rest, worship, and contemplation.

So the question boils down to one of how much of each. What are the recommended proportions of duty, devotion, and recreation in a life of spiritual leadership? I must admit that I don't have the answer at least not a formula-approach that says one hour of this and five hours of that or vice versa. Perhaps it is more a question of results rather than of time.

Better still, perhaps we could say that if your life is plagued with worry, frustration, criticism, and a desire to control someone else, then the one thing needful is missing. The relationship with God has been pinched and squeezed so much that it no longer deploys humility in your bearing and endurance in your spirit.

You can know when you've had enough of personal devotion time, and it will not be measured by the clock. A relationship with Jesus Christ takes time, but time, is not its chief characteristic. And this is where many a sincere person can encounter failure by trusting in time rather than in the Lord.

Getting control of space

Getting things done generally requires a specific work space that has been arranged for the purpose. Proper lighting, comfortable seating, desk space free of clutter and distractions and, as far as possible, free from noise these things are important to a leader's work space.

We must interject that the concept of multitasking that reports can be analyzed and sermons written while having background music from the radio or CD player is a very effective way to keep busy without being productive.

Contrary to popular opinion, get ting work done has little to do with the size of the office or the cost of the furnishings. A small space, well organized, is more conducive to work than a big room where the tools of work are scattered all around. Busyness can dominate in any room, regardless of its size or the grandiosity of its furniture and equipment.

Most people will find that working at home presents more opportunities for busyness than working in an office. In general, homes have more work space options. This morning I can do reading while sitting on the sofa, and later I can move to the recreation room. This afternoon I can spread out my papers and do planning at the dining room table. Towards evening I will sit out on the verandah and make those phone calls that I didn't get done last week. Now where did I leave my glasses? What happened to my pen? Has anyone seen that scrap of paper on which I wrote the phone numbers of those I was to call? My life is so busy!

Getting control of stuff

Junk mail, snail mail, email, forms, files, and faxes! There is no time to process it all. The stuff just piles up a real sign of busyness. It is a serious mistake, for those who have the luxury of an assistant or two, to allow anyone to sift, sort, and prioritize the flow of documents to the leader's desk.

Just stabilize the pile, don't clear the desk. After all, a clean desk invites suspicion that perhaps you are not all that busy and maybe not all that important in the chain of command. Einstein was right. "Nothing hap pens until something moves."3 Apparently Einstein applied this principle to some complex theory in physics. But being a genius, he surely must have noticed that the principle applies to stacks of paper on the average office desk.

"Handle stuff once and keep it moving" is a management mantra for the product assembly line. That same idea has been imported to the boss's office by those who think their job is to get things done. These are the same people who have garbage bins equal in size to their filing cabinets.

They even claim that a good filing system frees up a lot of memory storage in one's mental software. Maybe it is a good idea to invest in a file cabinet, another sign of success but don't mess with the organization of folders and file labels. That way you will always be busy looking for that piece of information you read just recently but didn't know you needed until right now.

Much of the stuff of leadership life comes from attending meetings. Having a full schedule of meetings is a great way to keep busy. Membership on numerous committees is an indication of one's value, and if you play the cards just right, 99 percent of the time you will never be asked to do anything. A friend of mine claims the actual percentage is 99.1 percent. But I doubt his research. He also exaggerates about the intelligence of his grandchildren. So I have played it safe and used a much more conservative number.

Be on your guard, though, in those meetings for which you have been given an advance agenda, where the membership is small, and the chair person defines success as "action decisions and task assignments." Such a meeting may get things done! The way to deal with such situations is to propose that more members be added to the committee and that more study be given to the proposal at hand. Reaching a decision in a meeting can be a very risky thing. If something must be done, the safest thing is to recommend that another group study the issue.

In summary

If you've read this far, it must be that you are not very busy. Perhaps your concern is with getting things done and you never seem to accomplish enough in your present leadership role. You may have a good deal of control on your time, yourself, your space, and your stuff, but you still seem to be unable to get everything done. If that is your situation, this article may not offer much help, for I have no idea how one can accomplish all that one would like to do, or even should do.

However, you might find encouragement from Charles Hummel: "Jesus... did not finish all the urgent tasks in Palestine or all the things He would have liked to do, but He did finish the work which God gave Him to do. The only alternative to frustration is to be sure that we are doing what God wants. . . . Then and only then can we think of all the other unfinished tasks with equanimity, and leave them with God."4

So you see, the crucial message that I have been driving at in this brief essay is that getting things done and being busy are not identi . . .(Oops, there goes my cell phone. It might be someone important. I'll have to finish this later.)

1 Don Herold, quoted in Edythe Draper's Book of Quotations far the Christian World (Wheaton, 111 Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.).

2 Quoted from <http i //>

3 This quote is attributed to Einstein (see Bottom Line Secret,, February 15, 2005, page 12).

4 Charles E. Hummel, The freedom from Tyranny of the Urgent (Downers Grove, lil : InterVarsity Press, 1997). Cited on Christian Quotation of the Day (, September 10, 2002.



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Lowell Cooper is a general vice president for the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Silver Spring, Maryland.

July/August 2005

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