Is Busy really Best?

A photo by Anna Dziubinska.

I was hungry and had decided to leave my desk to grab a sandwich and coffee to keep me going. As I left the office, I became entangled in a throng of people on the London streets. My first thought was “There’s been a bomb scare.” Why the crowds?

It was only when I looked at my watch that I realised what was happening. It was 5.30pm and people were starting their commute home. I had missed lunch in my state of busyness.

Back then, I was working at a US law firm, which had recently set up shop in London. I was a young qualified associate with (I thought) something to prove. And I felt that I could prove myself by working hard. After all, I had been raised under the mantra of ‘effort yields rewards’ and I had achieved the grades through hard graft.

Like other professional services organisations, a law firm was – and still is – the perfect breeding environment for fostering this culture. Being busy means clocking up those hours. And hours means success. Targets for billable hours encouraged excessive working habits and { whisper it } exaggeration – one partner encouraged me to bill time even if I thought about a chargeable matter in the shower. Presenteeism was so rife, that I knew colleagues who left their jackets on the back on their chairs to give the impression they were still working whilst they sneaked off to the gym.

The traditional approach of charging clients for legal advice based on the time spent does nothing to dispel this warped perspective. Speed and efficiency is not rewarded. And chunks of time end up being written off due to inaccurate quotes or client push-back. The increase in alternative billing arrangements, such as fixed or capped fees and ‘slice and dice’, is forcing firms to address bad habits. But the overwhelming culture that exists among lawyers is one of busy is best.

Being seen as busy is not the exclusive preserve of private practice lawyers. Job insecurity among in-house lawyers in the financial services industry has also inadvertently encouraged ‘busyness behaviour’. And pressure to appear busy can be catching. In my experience, sales folk are the worst culprits of huffing and puffing about how busy they are. If you spend all day around people who appear busy, then it is no wonder that you follow suit.

Oliver Burkeman’s excellent series on busyness on BBC Radio 4 last week ( provides some insight into the root of this desire to demonstrate busyness. Burkeman believes that the desire could stem from an insecurity to impress others by our busyness. After all, someone who rushes around from meeting to meeting, who skips meals and pulls all-nighters has to be important, right? As Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics put it: “Effort is a heuristic we use to assess value.”

So, if we put in longer hours do we become more valuable? Well, if you can recover all the hours that you put in as chargeable, then, yes, on one level, you are more valuable to your organisation. However, times are changing and the chargeable hour billing methodology is under severe pressure from increasingly empowered and challenging clients.

In any event, I am interested in what drives lawyers and other professionals to think that busy is best. In social psychological terms, as Oliver Burkeman highlighted, one type of thinking could be what is known as self-signalling – we work longer hours to justify things like our salary and our social status to ourselves – put simply, we justify our value by this behaviour.

Dan Ariely also points to activities outside of the workplace, such as athletic challenges and charity fund raising, as a manifestation of us piling pressure on ourselves to appear busy. For some, I am sure that this behaviour is all about being competitive – “Angus has taken up triathlons, maybe I should too…” For others, perhaps being busy inside and outside of work is so normal that people have ceased asking themselves why.

If my thoughts resonate with you, here are a couple of questions to ask yourself:

• What type of ‘busy” am I?
• Does being busy make me more effective?
• What would it feel like not to be busy?