Thursday, April 9, 2015

Busy or Productive?

For a time I worked for a community organisation, providing support for the long-term unemployed. These were usually people dealing with a multitude of issues: psychiatric and other health and/or substance abuse issues; domestic violence; restricted educational opportunities. What exactly I was supposed to do to help them was never quite clear. An hour’s chat, once every month or so—if they turned up for their appointments—achieved little. Often they didn’t turn up; and, let’s face it, beyond meeting the requirements for their welfare payment, what incentive did they have?

What struck me was how busy these people were. This was often their excuse for not attending their appointments: they just had so much to do! Quite how they managed to be so busy—always with no paid work, usually with no educational commitments, and often with no family commitments either—remained a mystery. There was I in my office, awaiting people who didn’t show, twiddling my thumbs, wishing desperately that I was as busy as my clients appeared to be.

This appearance of busyness is one I have encountered in many places and circumstances over the years. There were my fellow workers in that establishment, for example. I know they had just as much difficulty encouraging their clients to attend appointments as I did, but talk to them and they were always quick to tell you how busy they were.

When I was a clergyman I would often struggle to fill my time productively. I was, therefore, filled with guilt and a sense of inadequacy when confronted with the apparent busyness of my colleagues. What was I not doing that they were? Was I simply more efficient than they were, completing all the necessary work in much less time? Was I overlooking some important duties? Or were they really far less busy than they would have me believe?

The truth is probably a mixture of these things. Some things I probably didn’t do as a curate or as a chaplain that I was expected to do. I didn’t, for instance, visit every day the same people that I had visited the day before, who showed no interest in my visits; or who would tell me the same stories again. I didn’t stand around for hours in the nurses’ station ‘networking’ with staff, building ‘relationships’ with them—in fact gossiping and distracting them from their duties. I didn’t always attend the seemingly endless sequence of vital committee meetings. I didn’t always spend enough time writing reports that no one would read.

Also I have always been very efficient. I have always been able to spend half an hour on a task that might take someone else two hours. I was never inclined to extend this half hour by engaging in a very important, hour-long telephone conversation with a colleague—more ‘networking’ I failed to do. The problem with this efficiency is that it has often left me bored, at a loose end. What do I do now? The secret, I have learned from others, is, apparently, to create work. ‘I really must re-organise that filing cabinet that I re-organised last week.’ ‘I really should visit Mrs Smith again, because she seemed a little down at the service last week—and she makes lovely pumpkin scones.’ ‘I should form a committee to make sure that all our other committees are functioning efficiently.’

Busyness fills our empty spaces, warding of boredom and, perhaps, a nagging sense that what we are doing is not really achieving very much. Busyness (we hope) increases our worth and value in the eyes of others.

Much more important than busyness, of course, is productivity. I use this term with reservations, because it is used by business and government to constantly demand that more be done for less. Despite this abuse of the term, I know what gives me the greatest satisfaction. I can have a very busy morning but achieve nothing. On the other hand, I can have a quiet morning and achieve much. If I have a really productive morning—perhaps I write a very good chapter, or manage to get a huge chunk of copy editing out of the way—I feel satisfied. I can have a very busy day and feel no satisfaction at all. If I have a productive morning, perhaps it is okay to spend the afternoon reading for pleasure, or listening to music, or walking on the beach, or watching the birds chase each other among the trees. I don’t need to fill the empty time with more busyness. And I don’t have to feel guilty for not doing so.

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