The worst way to buy yourself time to think

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(MoneyWatch) There's a funny epidemic going around offices these days -- an epidemic of looking busy. You know you've caught the disease when you buy into the idea that if you're staring at a computer or smart phone, you're doing something. Reading a newspaper? Not busy. Reading headlines online? That looks like work! A calendar filled with nothing? Not busy -- even if you're thinking of a brilliant new line of business or a product hack that could save you millions. A calendar filled with meetings? That person is going somewhere!

I've written here multiple times about fighting the urge to look busy. If you need a break, take a break. If you're done for the day, go home. If your work involves using your brain, and you work best lounging on a couch, by all means do so. So I was intrigued to read a story over at Lifehacker by Alan Henry suggesting that looking busy could actually enable creative work and strategic thinking.

Say what?

Here's his explanation:

"The point of looking busy is to remind your boss and your coworker that your time is valuable, that there are only so many things you can work on at once, and to give you some breathing room so you can actually think." How do you look busy? Doctor up your desk. "No one should walk past your computer midday to see an empty desktop or lack of papers on your desk," Henry writes. "Get a second display and keep your email client open in one screen and your work on the other. Keep a few apps open in the background at all times." He also advocates being an "email responding ninja" -- answering quickly, but with some response that shows just how busy you are. Not an answer, but an "I'll get back to you on this as soon as I can." Don't answer "what's up?" with "not much." Oh, and say no. "No" works wonders, especially when said in a cheerful way that implies just how much you have on your plate and how you wish you could take this task on...but just can't.

The goal of all this is to create a buffer around yourself. You ward off unreasonable or unnecessary tasks that people up the chain from you will try to foist off on others. Once you have that buffer, you can work on the core tasks of your job, and the tasks you want to do to advance your career in the future.

It sounds quite reasonable except it's pretty dishonest and inefficient. Some organizations are dysfunctional enough that such office jujitsu is necessary. But if so, perhaps you should try to look busy to cover up a job search. There are great places to work out there and great bosses to work for. The best use of time is figuring out how to land a job situation where the real tasks of your job are the ones you spend your time doing -- out in the open, with a clear conscience.

Do you try to look busy at work?

Photo courtesy flickr user ceasedesist

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