Appearing to be Busy and Being Effective are Different Things

Appearing to be Busy and Being Effective are Different Things

Deepak Chopra and Kabir Seghal recently repeated what we all already know – too many of us claim to work too much. They write that we brag about being busy even when we’re not, everyone is busy, and claiming to be too busy may make people less likely to offer you new opportunities because you’re too busy. This isn’t news. A colleague down the hall from me at The George Washington University has a similar article from 2014 taped to her office door. And the problem isn’t unique to the US - I am on the graduate committee of a student writing a capstone project on the problem of unnecessary and counter-productive busyness in South Korea. Nevertheless management consultants remain very busy telling all of us that we’re too busy being busy to get as much done as we’d like.

A lot of people who are busy being busy spend their downtime busily rushing kids to and from soccer games and practices, playing soccer themselves, and/or watching others play soccer on TV (if they’re watching a game they’re usually busy doing something else at the same time). That’s good news, because soccer has a lot to teach about the importance of managing space and time for maximum impact – in other words, the importance of not being busy all the time.

Sometimes (soccer) is a game of speed and sometimes it’s a game of stamina. There are times when you need to sprint, times when you should walk or trot to save energy for that next sprint, and times when you need to keep pace to stay with the play for that moment when you become a key part of the attack; the need for varying speed, knowing when to exert energy and when to reserve energy. The need for varying speed, knowing when to exert energy and when to reserve energy and that constant give-take is a much needed skill-set in management and business.
- Ashley Starks Amin, former NCAA Division I player at The George Washington University, social entrepreneur in Soccer Thinking for Management Success

Soccer is a physically demanding sport. Professional fields are typically longer and wider than US football fields, halves are 45 minutes long without any timeouts, and teams are generally allowed only three substitutions per game. Games are played in near blizzard conditions, at high altitudes, and in sweltering heat. All in all pretty exhausting. To ensure they are as physically and mentally sharp at the end of a game as they are at the beginning, soccer players spend a lot of time not appearing to do much at all. The best players time their runs so that they are as fast as the end of a game as at the beginning. A forward may sprint 40 yards to chase down a pass, but when the ball turns over and the play is at the other end of the field the forward will jog back into a position to be ready for the next burst. Similarly a defender may go hammer and tongs with a forward to keep her away from the goal, and when the job is done she may walk back to a space where she may be needed again. This jogging, walking, or even standing around is strategic. A player who spends the first 20 minutes of a game sprinting back and forth is useless for the remaining 70 minutes.

Over the course of a season top players are rested for a game or two. Regular starters are used as substitutes from time to time. Players may hate being benched, but coaches know that even top athletes need a break to be at their peak at the end of a season.

The best staff and managers outside of soccer know this as well. When I interviewed him for Soccer Thinking for Management Success, former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhan told me that “One of my rules [at the Embassy] was I wasn’t clocking hours the staff were at their desks. No one worked weekends – over six years, my staff only worked weekends once. The counter is that if I ping you at 3 a.m. you need to be responsive.” Ambassador Sarukhan (whose less prestigious title is goalkeeper on the over-45 rec league soccer team on which I play) said that without adequate rest his staff would not have been able to perform at their best when needed most. I should also note that he spends a lot of time yelling at me on the field to “stay home” and not keep trying to sprint up and down the sideline because I will inevitably get tired and make a mistake.

Winning at soccer isn’t about running as much as you can over 90 minutes. It’s about being in the right place at the right time, and with enough energy and mental focus, to create and seize the right opportunities. Success in organizations is the same. Endless busyness does not make anyone successful, it just makes them tired.

For more lessons from soccer for managers and organizations pre-order Soccer Thinking for Management Success on Amazon today and look for it in bookstores starting July 27.

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