Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity


Fred Perrotta

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.

This is how Cal Newport defines busyness as a proxy for productivity in his excellent book, Deep Work.

He goes on to explain:

If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems... all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.

Most importantly:

Knowledge work is not an assembly line, and extracting value from information is an activity that’s often at odds with busyness, not supported by it.

This last line gets at the crux of it. To the untrained eye, busyness looks like productivity. In reality, it is the opposite.

Yet busyness is perceived as a status symbol in the US. We manufacture or feign busyness to seem important to ourselves and others.

Meanwhile, our busyness prevents us from doing the important work.

Busyness in Remote Work

Working remotely can remove our worst tendencies to appear busy because it removes the observer. No one can see you rushing around looking harried if you aren't sharing an office.

Of course you can claim to be busy on a remote team but most of the visual indicators are gone. No one can see you clocking extra ass-in-seat time.

You only have your true productivity, not a proxy for it, to show and by which to be measured.

Working remotely does not make it impossible to claim busyness, to work on the wrong things, or to impress your teammates by how hard you appear to be working. But, working on a remote team does make it easier to evaluate your peers and direct reports on their work, not the illusion of work.

Separating Work from the Appearance of Work

You still have plenty of ways to signal busyness (or presence) on a remote team. Like Newport's examples, you can schedule meetings, instantly reply to Slack and email, or claim to be too busy to take on anything new.

At Tortuga, we have team-wide weekly and monthly check ins to keep everyone apprised of everyone else's work. These updates create a healthy peer pressure, not to be busier than everyone else but to do a good job so as not to let down your teammates. I like to keep the entire team up to date and involved with each other's work. This avoids siloing these conversations into 1:1 meetings and keeps everyone involved and contributing at the company level.

The weekly updates are done by email where each person on the team answers three questions:

  1. What did you accomplish this week?
  2. What are your top priorities for next week?
  3. Where are you stuck? Where could you use some help?

Monthly recaps are also done by email but focus on team-level projects rather than on individual-level tasks. For example, the Product Team will let everyone know where we're at and what's in the pipeline. The Concierge team gives an update on our performance metrics and what we're hearing from customers.

As we grow, the weekly emails will become unwieldy, and we'll adjust to a more scalable system.

The important thing is to focus on the process and the results (good and bad) to get stuff done, not just be busy.

Further Reading