By Tim Hayes

Sitting at my old wood-and-wrought iron desk in fourth grade, the smell of floor wax and fresh pencil shavings wafting through the ancient classroom, I stared at the list of words that Mr. H. was screaming at us to finish working on.

We were converting nouns from a description into a personal state, as in “happy” to “happiness,” or “hopeful” to “hopefulness.”  It was either English or spelling class.  It’s all a blur, for the most part.

But one part of the lesson that has remained very clear in my mind surrounded the word “busy.”

Mr. H. called on me to give the answer, naturally, and I suddenly became torn.  Was the converted word “busyness” or “business?”  I decided the correct response was “business.”  Mr. H. did not agree.  His teacher’s guide read “busyness,” and that was that.

Actually, for giving the “wrong” answer, I got off pretty light.  Mr. H. used to whip chalkboard erasers, pencils, even his car keys at the heads of kids who dozed off or gave stupid answers in class.  These were the golden days of parochial education, after all, when discipline meant whatever the teacher said it meant.

Anyway, the difference between “busyness” and “business” still intrigues me.  After two decades spent within large organizations, I saw way too many people who believed – and behaved – as though the two were synonymous.  As if “being busy” were the same as “conducting business.”

And they’re not.

An uncle who had served in the Army long ago told me once that, to stay out of trouble and avoid unnecessary or unpalatable assignments, a private’s best friend was a clipboard.  Just walk around, looking like you’re doing something important, jotting stuff down on that clipboard, and they’ll usually leave you alone, he said.  That’s busyness, not business.

Having recently started my 13th year as a standalone consultant, I’ve absolutely no time for busyness.  When you need to find the work, perform the work, invoice the work, and receive payment for the work yourself, every minute counts.  It’s got to be all business, when the alternative means you and your family go homeless and hungry.

According to a news release issued earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, nonfarm business sector labor productivity decreased at a 2.0 percent annual rate during the fourth quarter of 2012, reflecting increases of 0.1 percent in output and 2.2 percent in hours worked.  In other words, it took people longer to produce something during the most recent quarter, nationwide.

Can this be attributed to a disproportionate amount of “busyness” compared with focused, concentrated, applied effort in conducting meaningful “business?”  It’s hard to say with any certainty, but my guess is that some of that comes into play.

Sure, everybody needs to blow off steam and little slice of time occasionally.  When merely looking busy with your little Army clipboard gets a pass.  But when “busyness” supersedes real “business” – where products get produced efficiently and sold for a profit, which enables companies to improve facilities, hire more people, and increase salaries – that’s where the trouble starts.

And it doesn’t take having a teacher throw his car keys at your head for that basic business truism to sink in.

Copyright 2013 Tim Hayes Consulting