I regretted my tone as soon as I heard it in my own ears. Moments after hopping on a call—and in response to a colleague’s cheerful inquiry about how I was doing that day—I told her I was fine, thanks. It was short, not so sweet, and certainly conveyed the fact I was in the midst of a stressful afternoon. Her next statement was almost apologetic: “I know you must be really busy, and I won’t take too much of your time—I just have a few questions for you.” Instantly, I felt terrible. Of all the choices I could have made in that moment—showing vulnerability, using humor, sharing some insight into what was causing my stress—I let my tone suggest I was too busy to be bothered for connection.
Busyness is one of the greatest threats to kindness, especially when it comes to our professional lives. A growing to-do list can lead any of us to feelings of overwhelm, frustration, and even defensiveness when we are inundated with meetings and requests as we seek to protect our time. It’s during moments of busyness that we can see some of our most challenging traits emerge: our tempers flare. Our patience disappears. We say things we don’t mean, and we do things that are out of character. It can be easy to decide we just don’t have time to be kind—and yet, kindness is the one essential trait we need when we’re approaching our peak capacity.
Fred Rogers once remarked, "You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are." During a busy day, here are a few ways you can change your focus to ensure your choices reflect kindness.
Focus on focusing
One of the kindest things you can do your others—and yourself—is to eliminate distractions during your workday. Many of us overestimate our ability to multitask, and studies have demonstrated that as few as 2.5% of us are about to efficiently complete multiple tasks at the same time. You might be able to listen to music and respond to emails at the same time, but participating in a meeting while simultaneously responding those same emails is asking for trouble. Give your all to a single task before moving on to the next one. That may mean blocking time at the start or end of your day to handle meeting prep or follow up on messages, but those efforts will enable to you to focus on other tasks more easily throughout your day. You may also benefit from closing unnecessary apps, like your email or web browsers, when you are meeting with colleagues to avoid the temptation of responding to new messages or checking alerts that pop up. Give yourself—and your brain—the kindness of single-tasking instead of multitasking, which can help you to more accurately and completely cross items off your to-do list.
Focus on others
During our busiest times, many of us prefer to close ourselves off to others under the guise of creating space to focus on our work. But is that the best strategy? Mister Rogers once said, “In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers." No matter how busy your day may be, carve out some time to connect with your colleagues. From asking them how they are doing as you begin a scheduled conversation to sending a quick impromptu note to check in, your words can go a long way toward helping them during busy times—and, believe it or not, it can help you, too. If a colleague is working on a similar project, checking in can uncover opportunities to partner with them to divide work or align efforts toward a common goal. You may identify tasks that are redundant, which means your conversation can eliminate a duplication of efforts. No matter what, these connection points will help you to build trust and cultivate a supportive environment where everyone can do their best work.
Focus on sharing
There’s no reason to go it alone, especially when you have reached a stressful or overwhelming moment in your day. Just as you would encourage others to come to you if they needed some extra support, let your colleagues know if you could use the same helping hand. Just because a day or week is busy for you does not mean others are operating under the same constraints, and asking for help can provide a great opportunity to help your colleagues see how they make a difference. This is especially true for managers; when we make space for our team members to take on important tasks, they get to develop new skills and see how valuable their contributions are to team, department, or organizational goals. Sharing your need for support is far from weakness; it provides a powerful opportunity to let your entire team see how important they are to your success.
Make Kindness Your Choice
A few weeks later, I found myself in the midst of yet another busy day—and my phone rang again. It was the same colleague who interrupted me during a stressful moment once before, and this time I tried a new approach. I minimized my email, turned away from my computer, and answered her call. We chatted for just 15 minutes—15 minutes I would have said I didn’t have just before the call came through—and when we wrapped up, I felt a smile creep across my face as I turned back to my screen. Connecting provided me with a moment to help someone else, share some of my struggles, and hear a few tips to help me feel more in control of my work. Much to my surprise, it was just the focus I needed.
The next time a busy day starts to feel like it might be too much, take a few moments to align your focus and alleviate stress before it pushes you away from kind behaviors. Can you reorganize your to-do list and single task rather than multitask? Can you build time to connect with others? Can you ask for help? Whichever strategy works best for you, let kindness guide you through it. You might be surprised at how kind behaviors can provide the focus and clarity you need to succeed.