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  • Kate Mulligan

Are your teams too busy building the wrong thing? A deep dive into creativity, rest and culture

As a team outcome lead and agile practitioner I feel one of the values that is often neglected is having a sustainable pace in our team's way of working.

One constant I have found in many teams is we all struggle with being ‘too busy’. Being too busy is a symptom of an unsustainable pace. Sustainable working has to be a priority to improve team outcomes and create a more humane world of work.

This has led me down a thought process connecting leadership behaviours and rest to producing better outcomes, sooner, safer with happier teams.

Busyness is a relatively new phenomenon that came to light with the invention of the clock in the 1950s. The atomic clock enabled us to measure our time down to the nanosecond. This shifted us to fret over the minutes and seconds.

What causes the feeling of busyness? As author Oliver Burkeman puts it

‘It's true we live in a system that demands too much of us, leaves no time for rest, and makes many feel as though their survival depends on working impossible hours. But it's also true that we're increasingly the kind of people who don't want to rest – who get antsy and anxious if we don't feel we're being productive. The usual result is that we push ourselves beyond the sane limits of daily activity, when doing less would have been more productive in the long run.’

Most of the work we do is knowledge work. The real value lies in our team's creativity, relationships and decision making. We are in danger of believing the more minutes and seconds we spend working the more value we are producing. To an extent this is true, we need to put in the hard work, however we often let this go too far, where we are too busy to take a breath.

Being too busy is unsustainable. This perceived busyness increases our stress response. As a result, it is impacting our health, wellbeing and our work.

Busyness can impact our capacity for learning

Learning opportunities are lost in a number of ways when we are busy. From a physical aspect; the increased stress response impacts our ability to absorb information and hinders our quality of sleep. Sleep helps us process our experiences and daily learning.

From a behaviour perspective the need to constantly be working reduces the opportunities we take to reflect on our work. When we are busy the things that go out the window quickly include the time we spend resting and learning proactively. We miss the opportunity for creative connections and external inspiration.

Can the loss of learning and reflection opportunities lead our teams off course and too busy building the wrong thing?

No one sets out to build the wrong thing - considering we have access to an arsenal of tips and methods to help our teams build the right thing. The challenge is these will have limited impact if your teams do not have the mental capacity to take them on.

Building the right thing requires continuous learning from customers, industry innovations and reflection. If your teams are too busy their brains will not have the capacity to take on, process and in turn make effective decisions based on the learnings.

When we are too busy, extra information and learning overloads us.Busyness leaves us little time to process, distil and reflect on the work that we are doing.

When we are too busy welcoming change takes too much energy. It leaves us less willing to try something new, and makes it feel more painful when we do.

Your teams are in a state where it's difficult to process the information needed to adjust their direction and even when they do they are more reluctant because they don’t have the mental energy needed for this shift.

Why is REST a game changer?

Sustainable pace requires downtime. Rest is downtime. Rest allows us to be more creative, improve our relationships and improve quality.

Creativity and innovation

At the risk of sounding overly dramatic, creativity is dying. The conscious is what you're currently giving your attention to, the unconscious is everything else in the background that doesn’t have your attention.

It's estimated that around 95 percent of your creativity comes from this unconscious side and these two parts are in constant state of interplay.

Now here’s the interesting bit. Short sessions of rest seem to train the mind to “walk” between the conscious and unconscious more often, therefore improving the interplay.

When we rest our brain makes connections to previous learnings and experiences our waking brains are not able to make. It can also enable us to play out scenarios in abstract ways with this information.


Dr Christopher M. Barnes has done some amazing work showing how being well rested plays a part in your ability as a leader to build and maintain relationships and to motivate people.

When we become tired, we are more likely to be irritable and tense which in turn decreases our ability to read someone else's emotions, which can result in unwanted tension within the workplace.

Rest can also improve your ability to inspire and motivate those around you. A 2016 study has shown that when leaders evince positive emotion, subordinates feel good and perceive the bosses as charismatic. If we don’t get enough sleep, we’re less likely to feel positive and less able to manage or fake our moods.

Decision making and quality

“Making a small number of key decisions well is more important than making a large number of decisions” - Jeff Bezos

If you shortchange your sleep, you might get a couple of extra ‘productive’ hours, but that productivity might be an illusion.” Even worse, you may be making the wrong decisions.

Tiredness leads to impulsiveness, which can result in poor decisions and increased frustration. Allowing your team rest during the day will ensure that they are better able to deal with the day-to-day issues of work.

So what does science say? Imagine self control as a resource. A lack of sleep depletes your self control so the less you sleep the worse you become at filtering the prejudices that you know are wrong.

One study showed that participants who were sleep deprived were more likely to think they were right when they were, in fact, wrong. - I am sure we have all witnessed these scenarios. We can all think of scenarios where the right decisions have had a fundamental impact not only on the end results but the time it took to achieve them.

3 ways to improve your rest culture:

Rest is part of a sustainable pace for your team. The feeling of busyness at work often has the biggest impact on our ability to rest.

1 - Practice it yourself - respect your rhythms, schedule in rest

Talk about your rest and change your own patterns to avoid being too busy - leadership does impact employee rest habits. Dr Christopher Barnes' work shows leaders that have negative attitudes to rest results in their teams on average sleeping 1 hour less a night than those that have a positive attitude to rest. Easy things you can start doing today are to schedule your emails according to your team's working hours, lead by example and start to talk positively about rest. Rest is the single most powerful thing we can do to improve our performance.

2 - Measure the right things

What we measure drives behaviour, are our measures driving our teams to this state of being too busy. Focusing on the outcomes can help. If you are focusing on outputs it's more likely to lead to a spiral of the more I produce the better I am at my job. A classic example is measuring how many features a team created, incentivising the team to create lots of features over creative ways of achieving the same outcome with fewer features.

3 - Make the mental time for rest - break work down

Visualise and break the work down. Having small chunks of manageable work with clear outcomes will give your team a natural point for taking breaks as they complete the work. It will also give them an opportunity to reflect on the work regularly and improve before they get stuck into the next chunk of work.

Imagine a happy workforce that has the empathy to connect to their customers and colleagues, has the capacity to absorb new learnings, has the time to dream up innovations and confidence to fail and pivot.

Companies are a reflection of the people that work for them. They achieve what their people enable them to achieve. Rest is a fundamental ingredient to achieving outstanding results but it is the first thing that goes out the window in our pursuit to be busy. Shift your culture to prioritise rest - It’s a game changer!

by Kate Mulligan, 02/12/22


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