Is Busyness a Problem That Needs Fixing | Kathy Bourque

Are you one of those people who are always busy? Do you want to do something about it? Psst. It’s nothing to do with productivity.

This episode is a continuation of our summer series on work-life balance.
Leadership consultant and speaker, Kathy Bourque recently published a book on conquering busyness.

It’s not about time management or productivity, though. And when I chatted with her, I realized it’s not even a bad thing necessarily.

But as with most things in life, it is relative. Figuring out whether your state of busyness works for you or not IS a personal kind of a thing, much like what I said about work-life balance.

Highlights of Episode 102

  • When is busyness a good thing and when is it not
  • The questions you want to be asking yourself
  • Why is conquering busyness not about time management or being productive
  • The self-created situations that feed our busyness addiction
  • Tips for conquering busyness

You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app. Or scroll down for the edited transcript of my conversation with Kathy.

Mentioned in this episode


Edited Transcript

Lou Blaser Just to put our conversation in context, you had written a book that was recently published called Conquering Busyness. There was a longer subtitle to that, right? What was the subtitle again?

Kathy Bourque The subtitle is actually “A definitive guide to stop the overwhelm, get intentional and accomplish great things.” Which makes you think it’s about productivity but it’s not.

Lou Blaser Well, let me tell you. As soon as I saw that it was about conquering busyness, I said, “I have to read this book”. Because for my entire professional life, anytime I’m asked how I’m doing, my first impulse always is to say, “Oh, I’m busy.” That’s always my first answer. Sometimes I wonder if I’m celebrating my busyness.

So, I thought maybe we can start with level-setting. There is something about this topic that, to your point, people are going to think this is about productivity, but it’s not really about that. So, what are we doing that’s making us not able to manage all the things on our plate?

The Purpose of Your Busyness

Kathy Bourque When I wrote the book and I titled it “conquering busyness”, my husband said no one’s going to know what that means. He doesn’t work in any kind of corporate world or he’s not even truly an entrepreneur. I said people will get it, believe me, they will get it.

It isn’t about productivity in the normal sense, but it is maybe at the meta-level. Like you said, and I even mentioned that in the book, about you ask somebody how they’re doing and that’s the first thing they say, “Oh, I’m so busy” and we almost wear it like a badge of honor. The reason this book came to me as an idea is it’s something that’s been percolating in my life for a while.

We’ve talked before on here about career pivots. I was an entrepreneur for 18 years. I owned and operated a UPS store. I’ve always had a side gig. For a while, I did some economic development and I found out that that just was not for me. Part of it was because it was a very slow-paced job and I thrive in busyness.

So, you just have to be very careful that your busyness is serving you. Because it’s that fine line between stress and passion. If it’s your passion, maybe we should try to answer it like, “Oh my gosh, I’m living my passion.” I don’t know. It would just get a strange look for most people, but we should try that. We should actually try that for a change.

Lou Blaser Oh that’s true. Because the word carries some negative connotation. Although to your point, some of us sometimes would say it as a badge of honor, like, “Look, I’m busy.”

Kathy Bourque Well, especially in the world I come from right now, which is in healthcare. It is so much about the grind and adding on more. And that’s where you get into real stress and burnout. So, I think the biggest part about it is, is it serving you the way you want it to? Do you feel like you’ve accomplished a lot at the end of the day? Does it create energy in you? It’s more about how it is serving you and how it feeds what you’re doing in your soul than just productivity.

Lou Blaser There’s something that you said there, “Is it serving you”. It implies that we have a choice of how busy we make ourselves to be. Someone listening to this episode may say, “I have no choice. My job is like this. These are the things that happen. And I am always busy.” So, when you say is it serving you, all the things that we’re piling on our plate, do we really have a choice and what is that choice like?

Kathy Bourque We do have a choice. And again, it comes from being able to set really good boundaries. I’m a recovering people-pleasing, perfectionist. It’s like a double whammy because I always want to help people and I always want them to like me. And I always want to say yes, yes, yes. And that’s what gets us into trouble, right?

I’m going through this really big personal thing with my in-laws right now. Even setting some of those boundaries, I start to question, “Oh, I shouldn’t have done that because I’m afraid how they’re going to perceive something” or “Will they think I’m being mean?” And I have to get over that. And that’s really what this book is about. Digging deep to find your core values. Because you can say No in a way that helps you set clear boundaries and helps you conquer that busy-ness.

Lou Blaser I think in the introduction of the book, you wrote a phrase that I thought was very interesting. You said, “high inducing, never-ending cycle of addiction that comes with feeling needed and working all the time.” I wanted to put a pin on that and talk a little bit about that because certain words there, I thought, were interesting. The addiction part… addiction to being needed. Also, that is very inducing.

Kathy Bourque It is very inducing. Well for one, maybe you don’t want to break the addiction, maybe you love it. But again, it’s really about paying attention, getting very present and aware of how you are coming into the world. How you’re presenting yourself and the energy that you’re bringing.

Because if you thrive in that, then you don’t need to change anything. It’s more along the lines of if it’s getting to the negative toxic stress burnout piece that we all have seen and can know, that’s where you really need to step back and say, okay, something needs to change.

And it doesn’t always have to be drastic. I think we get to this point where it’s drastic. “Oh my God, I’m going to quit everything.” And I want to help people before they get to that point because that’s where my mind goes. So, this is why I’m writing. You know, they say you teach what you need to learn.

When we create our own busyness

Lou Blaser About that whole being needed… I would hear managers complain that their staff needs them to answer everything. They’re complaining that their staff needs them all the time. And I also hear that complaint from parents. “Oh, my kids, they need me all the time. They can’t even fix himself a sandwich. I have to do everything.” Makes us all question if this “being needed all the time” is something that we are actually encouraging?

Kathy Bourque Encouraging and producing. Like my husband and I have this discussion all the time about my son because he seems to be needed to be told something 3 to 5 to 10 times, you know? But we created that. Because we’re the ones that did for him and checked up on him. Hey, did you feed the dog? Hey, did you feed the dog? Hey, did you feed the dog? He’s been feeding the dog since he’s 5 and he’s now 15. If he doesn’t know to feed the dog, oh my gosh, we are failing as parents, you know. Thank God we only have one.

Lou Blaser So sometimes we are the ones creating all the need.

Kathy Bourque Sometimes we are, but the beauty of life is that we can always change, right? That’s our prerogative. And, and again, don’t beat yourself up about it because that’s the other thing. That’s why I say that I’m a people-pleasing perfectionist because not only would I set these ideals and I would swing all the way to the right, then all of a sudden I’d be like beating myself up for it and judging what I had done and Oh, I shouldn’t have done that. But we’re all human. This book is really more about building in awareness and of mindfulness to really say, this feels good, this doesn’t feel good. This is working, this isn’t working. And then going forward from there.

Lou Blaser Yes, that is so true. Because it always starts from, before we even start or try to change what’s around us, it’s “What’s going on with me first? Is this feeling good? Is this serving me at all?”

Kathy Bourque So, going back to your question about the parents doing that with their kids or leaders doing it with employees and staff. One of my favorite quotes I put right at the beginning of chapter one, “If you think your problem is out there, you’ll try to solve it from outside. Take the shortcut and solve it from within”. Which is Byron Katie. But it’s amazing because so much of what we do need to solve, we can do from the inside.

Why did you write the book?

Lou Blaser What was the main push for you to write this book?

Kathy Bourque The main push was that I am older. Because you do get wiser, I think as you get older. Back in my twenties as an entrepreneur, for me, it really was about building my business. And it still is about building my business. But I’m building it in a way now that is definitely, I’m not trying to do all the bright shiny objects that I had always done before because that’s where you get pulled into every direction.
You can’t do it all. And I think once you’ve learned that, I don’t even want to do it all. That’s the thing. I don’t even want to. I was doing it because I thought I had to do it. So it’s that whole hustle is sexy and grinding more is what it takes. I just don’t believe in that any longer because I’m to a point in my life where I think it is more about just being really effective. And that comes from inside

Lou Blaser Yeah. That reminded me of another book. I didn’t know if you’re familiar with Paul Jarvis, but he wrote this book called Company of One. In an environment where there are all these messages out there about the 7-figure business or the hustle, hustle, hustle, and the scaling, scaling, scaling, he wrote a book that says, “I’m happy to just be a company of one. I have no plans of having 10 employees.” That’s not his game plan. That’s not what he wants to build. So to your point, it’s important to understand what do I want, what’s the business that I want? What’s the career that I want? Do I even want that?

Kathy Bourque Oh, you so hit it on the head. I have not read that book, but I need it. So, to put a little perspective, I’m 51. But back in my 20s, it was all about going to school, getting out, getting married, getting a job and working yourself up the corporate ladder or whatever ladder that was. I was a bit of a rebel in the fact that I didn’t finish school that way. I finished it much later and then I went right into management instead of corporate. You can’t believe all the hype that’s out there unless that’s really what you want to do.

And so, I think even with your second breaks and your career pivots, I think that’s why it’s called the midlife crisis. As you get to a point where you’re like, oh my gosh, I’ve been working so hard at this and I don’t even want it. What am I doing?

And so again, if we can help those 20 or 30 somethings cut out some of that time and really try to find yourself from the beginning. And quite honestly, I know millennials get a bad rap, but I think they’ve got it better than I had anyways cause they’re more aware of all this. They’re more aware of wanting a work-life balance and that sort of thing.

Effectiveness versus Productivity

Lou Blaser When we started this conversation, we said it’s not really about productivity. And then a few minutes ago, you mentioned the word effectiveness. I think there is an implied difference there. Can you talk about your point of view re the difference between productivity and effectiveness and where should we be leaning towards ideally?

Kathy Bourque We’re not these industrial machines that just need to crank stuff out. We really need to be doing things and doing them again in the right way for me, which may be like what Lou’s doing and it may be not like Lou’s doing. But really finding out what it is that we can do and doing it for ourselves.

My son likes to golf and when he golfs, he swings a golf club like a baseball bat. And even if you don’t know anything about golf, what’s great about that is you can get a lot of distance on a ball. What’s bad about it is he has no accuracy. And so, I can out-golf him almost every time just because mine goes right down the fairway. I’m slow but I’m very accurate all the time. And so he’s learned. So now he’s in an actual team and the coach is trying to break that habit.

That’s how I compare productivity to effectiveness. Effectiveness is making sure you’re doing the right things. Again, sometimes that can only be for you and that’s the hard part, right? We want somebody to tell us exactly how to do it and we want somebody to give us the cheat sheet and the checklist. Unfortunately, you can’t really do that. You have to spend some time with yourself to figure that out.

I’m thinking about putting together a course and doing it more as a Beta version. And I like the whole Beta idea because not only are you testing the market instead of creating the whole course and throwing it out there and then maybe nothing happens. Yeah, you were super productive, and you had it and you made it. But it’s not effective if no one buys it. That’s a minimum viable product.

But the same is true in leadership. If you’re just going through the motions that you think you’re supposed to do, you may be super productive. But you may be going nowhere with like as far as influence or being really effective because it just isn’t who you are. And so I think at the bottom of it all is just being very authentic and being true to who you are.

Lou Blaser That reminds me of like a very corporate example. Many years ago, we had this client where the IT department spent a lot of money in time and resources developing a solution that their users actually didn’t want. It’s not really what the users wanted or that’s not really what’s going to help them. But the IT department thought this was the sexy product to produce. So, on the one hand, if you look at productivity and what they were able to produce that year, they looked very productive. But it wasn’t an effective solution for anybody because it didn’t really get buy-in. It didn’t really get used.

Kathy Bourque Right. Even in health care and in my organization, we’re getting much better about checking if the goals that we set last year — which we met — gave us the results we were looking for. And you would understand that process because it’s a very systematic process. So, what I’m trying to do is bring that systematic process to individual self-development so that you can be a better leader.

Tips for conquering busyness

Lou Blaser Perfect segue from my next question. Everybody loves tips. And in an effort to prevent the swinging from right to left thing, could you give us maybe two or three quick things that we can start with? So that we don’t go and throw the baby with the bathwater.

Kathy Bourque Right. Definitely work in some time for pause during your day. I finally found this app called Habit Minder that dings. I have it set for twice a day to remind me to breathe and just for two to three minutes.

Because if you can just really be intentional about putting some of that kind of time into your day, you can start to then pay attention to those things that really feel more like stress or really feel more like passion. And then that’s going to reset your energy. And that’s where the gold is for, for self-leadership, for being influential, for what you want to do. So that’s tip number one. Take some time for the pause.

And the reason for that is tip number two: Find out who you truly are and what you truly want. In my book, I have a whole workbook with all the questions like how to really dig deep in an organization. We call it the 5 why’s. Everybody’s probably heard of the 5 why’s that have been in an organization. But using that for yourself.

One of my examples is that I love to travel. And if I keep just digging deeper and deeper, why do I love to travel? What is it about traveling that I like. You get to the bottom where I really am an explorer, which would definitely make sense if you look at my varied past because I’ve done all kinds of different industries and different things. But I love to learn and I’m an explorer and that’s why I just love to travel.

So, taking some time to pause, get to know who you are truly, and then actually do some trials. And don’t wait. We could be super productive and plan it all out. Like, okay, I’m going to go on a diet and I’m going to do it in two weeks from now and I’m going to buy all this stuff. That’s how I used to diet. It was every Sunday night. It would be like, okay, tomorrow I’m going to do this and then that. Now, I just do it. I am just a ready-fire-aim person. If I’m going to do something, I just do it and I have much better results than planning it all out.

And that’s how you do tweaks. Just do little tweaks and see what works. For me, at first, it was like quitting diet coke. And then the next thing was like, okay, I need to really take in fewer carbs. And so, I think it’s that. It’s more those little bitty tweaks, and none of this, “oh my gosh, I’ve got to revamp everything.”

Lou Blaser I just wanted to put a pin on your second point, the way that you described that, because sometimes we ask ourselves the question, what do I really want? Or who am I really? And the answers don’t come right away and sometimes you have to, you know, spend some time asking yourself, digging through, asking yourself over and over because it doesn’t always come.

Kathy Bourque It’s one of those things again. For one, you might try it and you could find out that’s not who you are or that’s not what you like to do. And that’s okay.

I work with a lot of people on core values and finding the core values. One of my biggest Aha moments was 20 years ago when I figured out that your core values can change. I mean, they really can, depending on what age you are, what stage of life you’re at, that sort of thing. But also, if you have a big project coming up, work might be your number one core value for that period of time. But family really is your big thing, you know?

So that was really eye-opening for me. So yeah, not only asking yourself the five whys over and over and over but also asking yourself… a good coaching question that worked for me really well was, “Okay, but if you did know, what would you think?” Because I think in the back of our minds, we usually know. But there’s that fear. We usually know, we’re just afraid to set or afraid of what someone will think.

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