Managing through busy times

Do you feel like you’re constantly under the pump managing your work load? Kate Kearins shares some valuable advice to help you through those busy peaks.

When asked “How are you?” most people forego the response of “Busy.” “Busy” is a take-for-granted, a goes-without-saying state of being. It even now seems to feature in the early years of retirement (or “rewirement” as some call it).

But I can’t help feeling these days, more than ever, are especially busy, with long hours of work and so much to do. And I admit, I have found myself starting to once again tell people I am “busy” – and if they take any interest, they risk me starting to go through the big things on my list.

I know, it’s awful and it’s boring.

As more than one colleague is apt to remind me “We are not curing cancer” – what we do in our part of the university is important, but not so important we need to kill ourselves through overwork and/or work conducted at flying speed.

So, how do we manage the almost inevitable times when work volumes seem to blow out?

First, as managers, we have some serious responsibility to take here. What we decide needs to get worked on, often ends up being worked on by others. Making decisions might seem like the hard part but implementing them is really where the hard graft begins. And implementing a whole lot of new projects at once, on top of BAU, can be particularly challenging for those who work with us.

So, first, it’s a good idea to limit how many big changes we initiate at once, to phase their implementation, and to ensure that they are changes important enough to warrant making (and won’t later need reversing). That means some bottom-up input, and more time in the decision-making and prioritisation phase.

Second, then, is prioritisation. It’s a thing. It must be. I hear it in every job interview or discussion around managing workload. Far easier said than done.

Busyness can help here – or hinder. With so much to do, sometimes the big tasks with imminent deadlines mean the less important ones wallow in the inbox. Sometimes, along with the random requests and vague cries for assistance, less important tasks seem to somehow resolve themselves, get sorted by others or, over time, seem to simply no longer need attention. Either that, or you miss something big and pay the price.

Thanks to a superb exec assistant (in my case, my ‘manager’) that doesn’t happen too often.

Third, having a great team, support crew at work and at home….

Fourth, working on being match fit and scheduling time out….

Finally, if you find yourself in the ‘Busy’ zone, take a moment to ask yourself the below questions, wisely proffered by HR expert and colleague, Professor Candice Harris:

  • Why are you busy? Do you enjoy multi-tasking?
  • Is your job the right size? Does your organisation have enough staff?
  • Is it a permanent or temporary state (while you are waiting to onboard more staff)?
  • What is the line between busyness and chaos? How could the organisation support you? Is disorganisation a cry for help?
  • Are you spending too much time on things? Excessive attention to detail for little return?
  • Do you feel confident and willing to delegate work?
  • What are the outcomes of constant busyness? (Such as high leave balance, tiredness, short-tempered, missing the joy from work.)
  • Have you fallen into the ‘It’s quicker to do it myself trap’, which fails to support others to develop?
  • How are you using technology to be constantly ‘on’? Checking emails in microbursts at work, home and in-between will keep you constantly busy.
  • Does your busyness count and/or is valued?
  • How is the work you do leading to micro, meso and macro progress?  While you may be killing yourself for the organisation, are you changing/saving the world?


Imagine if our colleagues responded to the “How are you?” question with “Not busy” or “Just busy enough, thanks.” Would that be unsettling or inspiring – or even admirable?

As Candice insightfully asks, “What is the opposite of busy?” Has busyness become an expected state? Do our organisations have enough management nous and human resources for people not to be constantly busy?

Kate Kearins and Candice Harris are Professors of Management in the Auckland University of Technology Business School. Kate is Pro Vice Chancellor and Faculty Dean, and Candice is Head of the Department of Management.

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