Stop using 'I'm busy' as an excuse for screwing up

Courtney Lynch

Think about the last time someone around you screwed up, like missed a deadline, forgot to turn in a report or didn't show up on a conference call.

Did they offer an excuse, something like, "You know, I was just so busy?"

If so, that's not surprising. "I'm busy" seems to be a popular excuse for poor performance nowadays. Worse, it seems socially acceptable.

I cringe when I hear "I'm busy." Everyone is busy. Busy-ness isn't unique to anyone. When I work with people who use this excuse, what they usually mean is:

  • I'm late for the call because I didn't plan appropriately.
  • I have few boundaries and routinely drop things.
  • I'm rescheduling on you (again) because this isn't a priority for me.
  • I want you to feel sorry for me because I have so much to do.
  • I don't know how to manage my time.
  • This is the best excuse I've got for why I can't keep my commitments.

If you find yourself giving "I'm busy" as an excuse too often, know that the only way to learn and grow as a leader is to develop a sense of accountability for your actions.

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If you're so busy that your routine is killing your credibility with others and preventing you from being consistent, rather than blaming life for plotting against you, recognize that it's time to make some changes.

A great place to start is with basic time management skills.


Time is the great equalizer. Every human being, no matter how successful, wealthy or talented, has only 24 hours in a day. But what often differentiates high performers from the pack is what they do with the 1,440 minutes they're given each day.

Courtney Lynch

Unlike other resources, such as money or education, time is nonrenewable — you can't get more of it. So protect your time like you do anything else that you value. You wouldn't walk into your place of employment, give your Visa card to your colleagues and ask them to spend away. So why, then, do we so freely give away our time when it's so critical to our performance?

You have to learn how to "own" your time and invest in it wisely, which comes down to time management. These simple yet effective practices allow you to create greater capacity in your life to lead yourself and others.

1. Maintain white space in your calendar

Set aside a series of two- to three-hour blocks of time every week. Treat these open blocks as you would any other meeting or appointment. During these time blocks, think strategically, develop yourself professionally, or reach out to members of your network or mentors and invite them to lunch. White space is perfect for the key activities in your life that will never be urgent but are extremely important.

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White space isn't a time to catch up with your email — you should be doing that on a daily basis. But rather than react erratically to email, respond to it more intentionally. I recommend responding to emails twice a day — at mid-morning and in the late afternoon — so you can stay on top of your inbox and emails don't overwhelm you.

If every email is treated as a top priority, you wind up feeling like a dog on a choke collar being pulled in whatever direction its master wants it to go. Direct your own time; don't have others direct it for you.

There are going to be days when you need to be more attentive and responsive to emails than others. But assess each message for whether it actually needs a response right now. Most emails are not emergencies.

2. Make realistic to-do lists at the end of each day

The end of each business day is when you have the best perspective on what has to happen the next day to keep your success going. Make a realistic list of the two or three tasks that must get done the next day to keep moving forward on your initiatives.

Remember, you're not compiling a wish list but an "I'd better get these things done tomorrow or my credibility is going to suffer" list.

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3. Eat the frog

When you arrive at work the next morning, eat the frog by taking on the worst, or most distasteful, responsibility first. Start your day by doing the thing that you want to do least so you can get it out of your head the rest of the day.

We often stress about things we don't want to do but have to do, like expense reports or proposal writing. Then, when we sit down and do them, we discover they usually don't take as long as we expect. Eliminating these distractions early in the day frees us up mentally so we can be present for the rest of the day.

While there are many more tricks to the time management trade, these three tactics have been game-changing for the professionals I work with and also for myself.

Courtney Lynch served as a Captain in the United States Marine Corps before co-creating Lead Star, which specializes in helping small to mid-sized businesses develop leaders at every employment level. She is the best-selling co-author of "Leading from the Front" and the newly released "SPARK: How to Lead Yourself and Others to Greater Success" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2017).

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