Are you too busy doing STUFF?

I once shared a board room with Gimli, the dwarf warrior from Lord of the Rings and his gruff, in your face “its stuff, just stuff” mantra. Initially the other members of the board assumed it was a quirk of character but gradually it began to irritate and grate, as he frequently challenged ideas and suggestions with the outburst of “its stuff, just stuff”. Unfortunately just like Gimli his delivery style tended to stop others hearing the message that: your stuff is a distraction and indulgence that stops you focusing on the things that make a real difference in the business.

How often are you just too busy doing stuff IN the business, that it stops you doing more important stuff ON the business?

20 years ago not long after AOL had made email widely accessible as a communications tool, I looked up from my desk to see the MD standing in my office; he wanted to know what so important on my screen that I hadn’t seen him enter. “I’m clearing my emails” to which he replied something along the lines of “you won’t be needing your secretary then, but remember I don’t pay you to type, I pay you to hit your budget!” and walked out – message received loud and clear!

How often do you find yourself just doing stuff that is expected, inherited or requested of you, irrespective of its value contribution?

We are all guilty at times of doing stuff that we shouldn’t be doing, the nice to do stuff rather than the need to do stuff. Some wear the “I’m busy badge” with pride, I’m indispensable, I’m important, yet a full diary and a full inbox says more about one’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Northcote Parkinson’s laws around the issues of efficiency and effectiveness remind me of two stories that illustrate how easy it is to be too busy doing stuff.

Law#1 “The man whose life is devoted to paperwork  stuff has lost the initiative. He is dealing with things that are brought to his notice, having ceased to notice anything for himself”. 

I recently made a social visit to a client I had completed some work for six months earlier and over a coffee they begin to share with me how well things were going, how the team had adopted the changes and the positive impact it was having on their numbers. At which point I noticed two key totals didn’t correspond – long story short – they had been too busy doing the report stuff that they hadn’t cross referenced it with a related report.

Law #2 “Work stuff expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

After decades in stock control it came time for Gary (name changed) to retire and leave behind his daily task of compiling a materials report. Several weeks later the FD found himself in the stock control office (no he wasn’t lost) and noticed Gary’s vacated desk was piled high with candy stripe printouts – long story short – because no one had been using Gary’s report for any real value when Gary left no one noticed that the report had stopped being produced, not even the guy from IT who every morning added today’s candy stripe data on top of yesterday’s data … AND we had all gathered together to say goodbye to Gary and give him his “gold watch” – I hope he never got to hear what happened to his life’s work.

Five Solutions for Stuff

During my time at Williams Holdings, a successful FTSE 100 company that acquired and turned around under performing businesses; I was told to only have one “thing” on my desk at any one time, that being the “thing” I was working on. Which when practised did limit the distraction of stuff, though on the occasions of surprise visits my desktop was rapidly emptied into my desk drawers!

There is nothing wrong with doing stuff as long as it’s the right stuff, the trick is identifying the stuff that no longer adds value and letting go of it.

You could start by only having one thing at a time on your desk, or employ a Lean Six Sigma expert to help you, or employ a team that doesn’t create stuff or translate the lessons from production efficiencies to the office or for an immediate low cost high value impact ask some simple questions of yourself and your colleagues.

Is this stuff still required?

Is this stuff still relevant?

Is this stuff still adding value?

If your answer is anything other than a resounding YES, review it, revise it or just stop it and start doing the stuff that adds some real value to your business.


Since 2013 I have been helping ambitious SMEs with their Strategic and Leadership challenges.

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Posted in Company Culture, People performance, process improvement, Time Management
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