Is Busyness Sabotaging Your Relationships?


So, you’re busy. Your to-do list always seems overloaded. Things you really want to get done keep getting pushed further down on your calendar.

Join the club. Many (most?) people struggle with the same self-management issues.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Practicing a handful of timeless (no pun intended) habits can help you make the very most of your brainpower, your energy, and—yes—your time. In doing so, you can enrich your life and all the relationships in it.

Think about the key word in that last sentence: relationships. Our lives are enriched by relationships, not titles and toys. So we should do everything possible to establish, strengthen, and maintain important relationships.

An excellent resource is the classic book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by the late Stephen R. Covey.

The author’s son, Sean Covey, is now a highly regarded thought leader and bestselling author in his own right. When the 30th anniversary edition of the 7 Habits book was published, Sean offered insightful commentary at the end of each chapter.

This conversation provides tips that anyone in any environment can find useful.

Rodger Dean Duncan: Many people seem to measure (or try to demonstrate) their status by how busy they are. In fact, busyness seems to have become a badge of honor. How can the habit of putting first things first help people avoid (or recover from) an addiction to urgency?

Sean Covey: Busyness and productivity don’t have much in common. It is true that being busy is a badge of honor. But the real question is what are you busy about?

Most people are addicted to urgency, that is, addicted to things that are proximate and pressing and in your face, such as many texts and emails, other people’s minor issues, and pressing reports that no one reads. Have you ever completed a very busy week and said to yourself, “I feel like I was spinning my wheels all week but didn’t get much done?” I think we all have. That is what happens to you if you are simply responding to all of the urgent things in your life.

The alternative is to make “importance” the key criterion, rather than urgency. Make time for things that are important but not necessarily urgent, such as building relationships, preparation, prevention, exercise, planning ahead, and proactive work (work that isn’t in a crisis yet).

To do this, you will need to plan ahead and block out time for the things that matter most to you. Learn to plan weekly, instead of daily. Spend 20 minutes each week before the start of the week blocking out time for the key items you need to accomplish in the various roles you play.

Duncan: How does an abundance mentality help people practice the habit of win-win?

Covey: An abundance mentality is the idea that there is enough success to go around and to spare. A scarcity mentality, on the other hand, is the belief that there is only so much success and the more you get the less there is for me.

Sometimes it’s hard for people to see others become successful, especially close friends or siblings, because it makes them feel less successful themselves. This is a common occurrence.

On the other hand, people who think Win-Win care about themselves and they care about the other person. “I want to succeed, and I want you to succeed, too.”

Win-Lose is competitive and is all about getting ahead of the other person. Lose-Win is where you play the martyr—“Step on me. Everybody else does.” Both of these are weak.

Think Win-Win is the only real solution. To do this you have to adopt the abundance mentality and not be threatened by the successes of other people. Instead, you know that there’s more than enough success to go around. “I’m okay. You’re okay.” You do this by balancing courage for what you want with consideration for what the other person wants.

When you’re around Win-Win people, you can feel their spirits. You can feel that they have your interest at heart, as well as their own. It’s the power of an abundance mentality. It produces good feelings and breeds abundance in others.

Duncan: Our current political culture suffers from a serious deficit in reasonable dialogue. What’s your elevator speech in advocating adoption and practice of Habit 5 (seek first to understand, then to be understood)?

Covey: We are taught how to speak, how to write, and how to think. But we aren’t taught how to listen, which is the most important communication skill of all. If you watch the political dialogue or TV show conversation, there is only monologue. No one is listening to the other person. instead, they are preparing their response to what the other person is saying. As a result, we get contention and we miss out on so much of what could have been.

Just think what could be accomplished if people were to practice this habit and seek first to understand before expressing their viewpoints.

Most of us have poor listening skills. We probe, we advise, we interpret, and we give autobiographical responses, from our own heads. “Yeah, I know how you feel. I remember when I had a similar circumstance and this is what I did … blah, blah, blah.” We don’t hear what they are saying because they never took the time to understand us.

Empathic listening is where you truly seek to understand where the other person is coming from. You figuratively stand in their shoes, with no agenda other than wanting to understand. The best way to do that is to repeat back in your own words what the other person is saying and feeling. “So, if I understand you correctly, Susan, you feel really upset about how John is always taking credit for the work you’ve done. It makes you feel betrayed. And it’s causing you to want to get off the team. Is that it?”

Habit 5 is the habit most people think they do well—but actually do the worst. “Yeah, I think I’m a pretty good listener,” they say. But in reality, they’re listening from their own frame of reference and not from the frame of reference of the other person. They listen with an agenda and with the intent to respond, not to understand. They never get into the other person’s head. And they miss out on so much, including not uncovering core issues and never fully engaging people’s hearts as they could.

Duncan: How does this apply to leaders?

Covey: Listening empathically gets even harder when you’re in a leadership position because people tend to defer to authority. That’s why so many senior leaders are poor listeners and do most of the talking anytime they’re in the room.

University of California professor Dacher Keltner coined the term “the power paradox” to describe how leaders gain influence through empathy and other practices that serve others, but lose those skills as they gain influence and power. In fact, the farther you go up the ladder, the less empathy leaders tend to have.

If you’re in a leadership role, do a gut check. The next time you’re in a team meeting, ask yourself, “What percentage of the words spoken in this meeting today came from my own mouth?” If there were six people in the room, and 80% of the words came from you, that is a problem.

Duncan: Empathy is a critical component of genuine connection between people. What effect have email and texting had on that, and how can people balance the need to be effective in their relationships while being efficient with their time?

Covey: Email and texting are fine and efficient when it comes to communicating on quick and easy things, but they don’t work well when emotions are high.

I’ve seen this happen on my team. Someone gets upset and sends a pointed email. The other person writes back a novel. It gets contentious. Then they start copying people … and more people. And I’m like, “For crying out loud, just get on the phone and talk it through.”

The use of technology strips out the tone of voice and facial expressions that help us empathize. So, any time you’re dealing with an important, emotional issue, do not email or text. At some point, meet face-to-face or at least talk it out over the phone. An emoji just isn’t going to cut it.

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