An Interview With Tony Crabbe

Tony Crabbe is a Business Psychologist who splits his time between writing and consulting with companies including Microsoft, Disney, News Corporation and HSBC. As a psychologist he focuses on how people think, feel and behave at work. Whether working with leaders, teams or organizations, at its core his work is all about doing things differently.

Tony wrote his book, Busy, not as someone who claims to have the solution; but as a fellow sufferer of busyness; as someone who also struggles with the limitless demands and distractions of our world of too much. He wrote the book because he was convinced there must be a better response than ‘busy’

Here is my interview with Tony about his book BUSY: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much:

Armen: Regarding your concept of managing attention instead of time, I appreciate this perspective because it doesn’t allow for waste. Setting aside blocks of time can’t beat setting one’s attention on something. How did you come up with this way of looking at productivity?

Tony Crabbe: It came from many conversations with people who were frenetically busy, but felt they were achieving little. It was reinforced when I heard that 77% of UK workers feel they’ve had a productive day if all they do is answer their email; and when I also heard that 58% of knowledge workers are thinking less than 30 minutes a day. When I looked further I realised that these people were often being really efficient, scheduling and organizing their days to get through as much as possible. Their focus was on maximizing their time to be as productive as possible; and their technology allowed them to do this in a way that wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago. However, what was lost in this flurry of activity was undiluted periods of sustained attention. It struck me that the very tools we use to try and ‘get on top;’ are actually making things worse. We think and create best when we sink our attention deeply into the task at hand. We have the same amount of time as we ever had; what is under attack is our attention.

Armen: You discuss the difference between a flow state and a pretend state of flow involving busyness and psychic entropy. Can a state of psychic entropy ever lead to notable results, and is flow the only state that matters in producing a person’s essence?

Tony Crabbe: I describe the feeling of psychic entropy as one of feeling distracted and scattered. It’s a bit like when you shake a snow globe. When we are busy, we feel effective because of the buzz (and the dopamine) we get from slashing through tasks and emails etc. A state of sustained focus, such as a flow state, has been linked to higher levels of performance, less fatigue and more enjoyment.

However, this doesn’t mean we are completely unproductive in the busy state. It’s just that we’re likely to be doing things with less thought and less imagination. In addition, when we are busy and rushed for time, we tend to make less effective priority choices: we choose the immediate and obvious over the truly important. Now, if your goal is simply to get things done, a flurry of busyness can help. For example, people do more stuff if they are under time pressure. So, if you want to work on the things that matter, avoid the distractions and focus. If you have a bunch of simple tasks you just need to get done, give yourself a tight deadline and get busy!

Armen: In your discussion about being more strategic than productive, should a person regularly be assessing how they can completely rethink what they are doing as far as their strategy, or should they way until they get a feeling that they are being too redundant or inefficient in some way?

Tony Crabbe: I’ll answer this question on two levels. You’re right, there are natural points at which you might want to do a strategic review of your work, career or life. Such reviews might be triggered by a sense of frustration at your lack of progress. At these times, reviewing your values, your strengths and aspirations, as well as your career strategy, your focus at work and your brand can all be helpful.

On a more day to day basis though I think strategy also comes into it. We naturally tend to focus on the things that are most obvious to us. Email is obvious, our task list is obvious. When I ask to see people’s to-do lists, they are usually full of short term tasks. Their big priorities seldom make it onto the to-do list. To rebalance my focus more strategically, I have four big priorities, which are aligned to my values. Every day, before I get into email or tasks, I spend time reflecting on the progress against these the previous day, and what I could do that day to progress them further. It’s only then that I start to think about what else I might do. My big priorities come first; and so I think about them at the start of each day. If you like, this is a bit like a Balanced Scorecard. Businesses introduced balanced scorecards to track other important areas of their business to prevent a singular focus on the financials (which are the most obvious thing to track). I think, from a career perspective, busy activity (email, simple tasks, meeting attendance) is the equivalent of financials for a business: it’s the most obvious thing. By focusing on my longer term priorities, I keep my compass directed strategically.

Armen: You talk about maintaining social relationships for their health value, but also bring up focusing on a stronger connection with fewer people. I think this is wonderful because it cuts out the impetus to connect with millions through “social” media. Do you maintain a set of 10–15 people of your own, and do you feel that social media is hitting a form of an endpoint regarding its utility for attention/likes/connectivity?

Tony Crabbe: The research in this area is strong: striving for popularity will make you less happy and less healthy. On the other hand, spending quality time with loved ones is about the single biggest factor in health and happiness we know. It doesn’t mean we can’t use social media; but just don’t get hooked by it. It’s great to keep vaguely connected to all those old school friends, but don’t try and meet your relationship needs through social media. Studies show a strong correlation between heavy facebook use and loneliness. Also, limit your time on social media: other studies show it worsens our mood. Personally, I constantly strive to focus my attention on those that are closest to me. When I use social media it’s from a business perspective, not a relationship one. In the longer term, we won’t lose social media, I just think it will become a background factor in our lives. A pragmatic tool to use for certain tasks, not an exciting portal into relationships and certainly not a way of life.

Armen: In writing a book, compiling your thoughts, and releasing it as a package, do you feel like it promotes you toward creating more in that category, or does it give you a feeling of completion that leads you to then want to be creative in another direction?

Tony Crabbe: I thought, when I finished writing ‘Busy’ that I would be done with the subject, and that I’d write the next book on a completely different topic. I told myself I didn’t want to be the ‘Busy Guy’. However, as I have run sessions on the topic, and continue to meet people who feel helpless in the face of overwhelming demands, I still find the subject compelling and am continuing to work in this area. In the longer term future, who knows, but for now I remain convinced that the biggest issue facing many people today is their busyness; and so that is the problem I want to grapple with.

Thanks to Tony for his participation and Hachette Book Group for the review copy.

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