The Perils of Busy-ness

By Susan Battley

From what I observe, unproductive busyness may be the most critical behavioral problem in organizations today. A common complaint I hear from leaders and managers involves the proliferation of low-value tasks and activities.

In fact, a recent survey of 9,000+ executives indicated that decision makers worldwide are experiencing more distractions from core strategic focus.

Why do so many smart, talented people end up losing valuable time and energy, rather than acting in truly productive ways? Because everyday managerial work is hazardous to focus. Days are full of interruptions and unexpected demands on time. Meetings can proliferate like viruses. Automatic routines and rituals, poorly prioritized or unfocused tasks, and superficial behaviors sap managers’ capacities.

I frequently see low-value activities squeezing out problems and issues that are much more crucial to achieving bottom-line results. Leaders, senior managers, and board members too wind up postponing complex “big picture” issues, instead spending their most precious resource – time – on putting out fires and attending to squeaky wheels.


One way to get a grip on unproductive busyness is to apply the 80/20 Rule. Based on the Pareto Principle (1906), a mathematical formula Italian economist Pareto created showing that twenty percent of the people owned eighty percent of the wealth, the 80/20 Rule was subsequently confirmed in a wide range of studies and contexts.

It’s sometimes called the Rule of the Vital Few and Trivial Many: the impact of a vital few factors surpasses the importance of the rest of the factors, the trivial many. For example, 80 percent of your revenues comes from 20 percent of your customers. In other words, 80 percent of your results can be attributed to 20 percent of all possible factors.

Eighty percent of your time and energy should be devoted to the top 20 percent of activities that constitute highest value and priority. Can you say you’re doing this now? (Be honest.)

Of course, applying the 80/20 Rule presupposes that you have control over your schedule. In reality, this is often not the case. But I’ll bet you can do a much better job of time allocation than you’re doing now.

  • First, you need to be purposeful and identify very clearly what your top 20 percent consists of. You also need to have key stakeholders and implementers agree that these activities are indeed top priority.
  • Second, if something has to take a back seat or not get done, be sure it’s not part of this 20 percent.
  • Third, spend 20 percent of your time on the other 80 percent of your workload. Amazingly, you’ll get the “trivial many” done well enough.

Eliminate unproductive busyness. Clearly identify and focus on your top 20 percent. Do this organization-wide and you’re sure to achieve greater overall productivity and efficiency, to say nothing of increased creativity and employee satisfaction.

Copyright © Susan Battley, PsyD, PhD. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Susan Battley

An advisor to Fortune 100 executives and world-class institutions for more than twenty years, Dr. Susan Battley is an internationally recognized expert on CEO and leadership effectiveness. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional service firms, and elite research institutions. She has worked with chief executives, university presidents, Nobel laureates, and prominent scientists, diplomats, and educators. A respected media source for analyzing leadership in the context of news-breaking events and key trends, Battley has been featured in outlets worldwide including CNN, CNBC, Fox, Bloomberg, and National Public Radio, and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chief Executive, Business Week, United Press International, Harvard Management Update, Entrepreneur, Science, Leader to Leader, Investments, and Worth. She is the founder and CEO of Battley Performance Consulting, a leadership strategy and organization effectiveness consultancy.