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Fight the urge to look busy

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Spend enough time observing people at work, and you start to see what activities we value. Talking on the phone looks like work. Staring at a computer screen looks like work. Staring at the wall does not. Many of us learned these rules in our early jobs -- when the boss walks by, look like you're doing something! -- and we've internalized them completely. I work for myself out of a home office, and yet during work hours, I feel guilty for reading a newspaper, but don't have the same reaction to reading headlines online.

The problem is that this compulsion to look busy often has little to do with getting real work done. Consider an executive pondering a new line of business her company should pursue. In one scenario, she spends 2-3 hours per day interviewing people and reviewing data, and then another 4-5 hours just thinking -- walking around, perhaps, or sitting in a chair far from a computer and doodling. In another scenario, she spends 8 hours in meetings and dealing with the mess of her inbox. Any thinking time happens on her commute or off hours.

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I'm not sure which scenario is more likely to produce the right answer, but I do know that many people would assume certain things about any executive pursuing strategy number one. Give her more work, people would mutter -- she clearly doesn't have enough to do. Can't you see how busy the rest of us are with our meetings and phone calls? If our executive has a family, perhaps her partner decides that she needs to deal with any personal life emergencies or meeting plumbers at the house, because clearly she isn't doing anything that pressing. Thinking doesn't have to happen at a certain time, at a certain place and it tends not to involve concrete plans with other people. Therefore, it can always be put off. Because it can always be put off, it falls to the bottom of the priority list in a way that any random meeting does not. This tends to be true even if you're thinking about something important, and the meeting has nothing to do with your long-term career goals.

But you don't have to think this way. As a leader, you can fight the urge to look busy and encourage your team members to do the same. Set clear expectations and big, ambitious goals with firm deadlines for all steps along the way. But then, as long as people are meeting those intermediate deadlines, shut up about anything eccentric that happens in the meantime. If one of your top performers decides to bake brownies in the office kitchen at 2 p.m., you don't know that this isn't his way of mulling over the right way to pitch a project to a client it's taken a year to crack. You're paying for results, not minutes spent in an in-box. And great results don't always look like being busy.

Do you ever try to look busy at the office?

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