Being busy is our business

July 13, 2012

By Dan Schlacter

If you haven’t read the New York Times’ opinion piece, “The ‘Busy’ Trap” that ran last week, you are either really, really busy or you may be off seeking the quiet, creativity-inducing solitude the author mentions.

I read it. I also read a Wall Street Journal blog response (“Busy: A Four Letter Word”) to the piece and more than a few online comments on each.

As an employee of a public relations agency, I am required to stay as busy as possible. Agencies make money by billing time. If I’m not billing time, my agency is not making money. If my agency is not making money, I may find myself busy looking for another job.

MP&F'ers Kelly Brockman, Katie Coppens and Katherine Neunaber staffing the 2012 Tennessee Early Childhood Summit in June.

MP&F’ers Kelly Brockman, Katie Coppens and Katherine Neunaber staffing the 2012 Tennessee Early Childhood Summit in June.

In my seven years here at McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations, I have had plenty of opportunities to evaluate what it means to be busy, and the importance of accurately communicating that level of busy-ness to my colleagues.

From the straightforward “How busy are you?” to the more inquisitive “What’s your capacity like?” this is how we, at MP&F, ask each other, “Do you have time to help?”

MP&F'ers Kate Vorys, Logan Pratt, Sam Kennedy and intern Andrew Colton staff the John Templeton Foundation’s Spirit on the Square event in Winchester, Tenn., in June.

MP&F’ers Kate Vorys, Logan Pratt, Sam Kennedy and intern Andrew Colton staff the John Templeton Foundation’s Spirit on the Square event in Winchester, Tenn., in June.

The common responses of “Not so bad” and “I’ve got capacity” mean “Sure, I can help.”

Admittedly, these are pretty vague. The details come in when we say, “No, I can’t help,” though no one ever actually says it like that.

What we do say are things like, “I’ve got a media plan that is due at the end of this week, an event next week, a few off-sites and I was just added to a quick-turn RFP.”

By telling each other honestly and in detail what we have going on, we allow the person asking for help to do a few things:

  1. Understand why we are turning down the work.
  2. Determine whether or not his or her project can be added to the bottom of our to-do list without getting off schedule.
  3. Give one of our projects to someone else so we can do what he or she needs us to do.

In comparison with the articles mentioned above, if we were to instead say only, “Sorry, I’m really busy,” we would be doing ourselves and our colleagues a disservice. By using vague, dismissive language, we prevent ourselves from taking advantage of an opportunity that is being presented, and we force our colleagues to make management decisions with as little information as possible.

Neither scenario benefits the workplace or the work product.

Similarly, if we continually avoid social invitations by claiming to be busy, we avail ourselves of a few risks:

  1. Being taken off the invitation list altogether (which may sound nice until we find ourselves at home, not busy, while everyone else is busy doing something we would have been interested in.)
  2. Repeated invites from folks who assume that, if they ask often enough, we’ll eventually acquiesce.

So, take a tip from a communications professional: If you are going to turn something down, be honest about why you are doing it. It will pay off in the long run.

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2 Responses to “Being busy is our business”

  1. Ken Jacobs Says:

    Great post, Dan. Just one thing: In all our business and yes, focus on billing, we forget the most important things for which clients compensate us: Thinking. About how we can improve our programs on their behalf. About what’s coming next in communications. About their business. In particular, the competitive threats to their business about which they haven’t yet thought. So make sure it’s the right kind of busy. And if you’re not yet doing it, bill time into your Outlook calendar for “Thinking.” It may be your most important 30 or 60 minutes of your day.


  2. Hi, Ken.

    Thank you for the comment. You have brought up an excellent point. Accepting that “thinking” is a valuable activity was tough for me when making the transition from worker bee to more of a managerial position. Taking steps, like building time in our schedule as you suggest, to ensure we place a premium on thinking, planning, strategy and management is a must. As you said, it is what our clients pay us for.


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