Busyness: The Trap That Keeps You From Change

In this excerpt from the new book Flying Without A Net, author Thomas J. DeLong explains how people use busyness at work to distract them from changing themselves and their career.

Flying Without A Net

When high-need-for-achievement professionals become anxious–when they feel isolated, lacking in purpose, and insignificant–they often find it difficult to rise above these feelings and see another view. Instead of confronting their anxiety and making the behavioral and work changes that will further their growth, these individuals plunge deeper into their anxieties. Why don’t these bright, ambitious professionals see what is happening to them? Why are they unable to muster the courage to make themselves vulnerable to fresh challenges and new experiences, to change in ways that will allow them to flourish?


Because they’re trapped.

If you’re not progressing in your development toward a goal or purpose that matters, you’re likely caught in a trap. The only sign of life is growth. Even with this litmus test, you may refuse to accept or admit that you’re trapped. Denial is a danger for many driven professionals whose egos prevent them from facing the facts of their situations. Instead, they settle into their anxiety-lined traps, working competently if not exceptionally, feeling okay about their work but not great. It’s a limbo of sorts, and while it might not feel horrible, it has a horrible result–people aren’t working up to their capacities or willing to stretch themselves.

If you’ve ever raced from one meeting to the next and occupied hours responding to emails, you may have fallen into the busyness trap. Yes, many high-need-for-achievement professionals have a lot to do, and it’s possible to be busy with challenging, meaningful work. But when you’re busy for busyness’s sake–when you take on mundane, repetitive tasks just to make sure you look and feel like you’re accomplishing something–then it’s possible that your anxiety has driven you into this trap.

Think about how you appear to others when they first enter your office, watch you walk through the hallways, or engage in a conversation with you. In these unguarded moments, do they observe any of the following traits:

  • Your face is tight, and a sense of urgency is conveyed by your every move.
  • During conversations, you make a show of listening but seem to be counting the seconds until you can move on to the next thing.
  • You walk fast, talk fast, and create the impression you are purposeful and relevant.
  • You never appear to be lost in thought; you’re always talking or reading or checking your computer or handheld screen.

If you’re honest with yourself, how much of your frenetic pace and harried attitude is for show? Deep down, do you believe that if you run fast enough and distract others enough, somehow your worries will disappear? Let me introduce you to a high-need-for-achievement professional who is caught in the busyness trap.


Sal, a vice president of a large advertising agency, is criticized behind his back for not thinking strategically; people also complain that his meetings go nowhere and that he seems to jump from meeting to meeting but no decisions are ever made or process completed. One team member told me over drinks, “Sal is so frightened of being irrelevant and being found out that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he comes into a meeting. There is no discussion. There is no decision making. We are simply a group of individuals who come together and put up with a charade. If these meetings are only informational, then I shouldn’t have to get on a plane and fly across the country to be told what I could have learned on e-mail.” Sal mentions at least once in every conversation how many e-mails and voice mails wanted his attention; he uses his schedule to create the illusion that he is important. In other words, Sal fills his agenda with activities, but too often they are activities for activities’ sake. By booking himself solid, by calling for meetings and commanding people to attend them, by e-mailing and cell-phone calling constantly, he convinces himself that he is achieving. In fact, he is unable to engage in the difficult conversations and make the tough decisions that are necessary for true achievement.

We use busyness to cover up our need for inclusion, purpose, and significance when we hit a rough patch in our careers–we encounter a bad boss or experience a bad fit in an organization. We first try to look and feel busy in order to prove to a boss that, despite his misgivings and criticism, we are dedicated and productive. We make a great show of working late or coming in early to convince people that, despite not fitting an organization’s needs, we take our job seriously.

These busy behaviors, however, are a charade. In fact, they’re done not just to prove to others that we’re industrious but also to prove it to ourselves. We live in fear that we will be found out, that others will learn that we are adding basically nothing to the enterprise. We fear admitting this truth to ourselves, and being found out would bring shame and humiliation. Those emotions are anathema to high-need-for-achievement professionals who thrive on a lofty self-image. Therefore, we do all we can to avoid having nowhere to go and nothing significant to do. Being busy helps us avoid the embarrassment of not working up to our potential.
More important, we may not want to admit that we don’t know what to do with ourselves, either personally or professionally.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Flying Without a Net: Turn Fear of Change into Fuel for Success. Copyright 2011 Thomas J. DeLong. All rights reserved.