Lessons from a Hamburger Stand

Forty, or so, years ago on a hot September evening, I found myself working at a hamburger stand during the West Texas Fair and Rodeo. I was volunteering for the Abilene church I had recently joined, and this was their big fund-raiser each year. I worked there several times over a couple of years. We were a short-order organization making each burger to each customers’ specifications. I learned, or was reminded of, a number of lessons during those shifts. One, a shared and reasonably challenging task is a great way to get to know people. It’s one of the realities that gets warped by many organizations into a variety of hazing activities. (The other reality that gets warped is that working through difficult times is often bonding, but that’s for a different newsletter.)

Back in the heat of the hamburger stand, I also learned a reality of working on an assembly line. The assembly line is quicker and more efficient when it’s busy and fully functioning. When the fair was busy and lots of people wanted burgers, we had lots of patties on the grill, buns were ready and we moved a lot of food through quickly to waiting hands. When it was slow, we had to start the patty, get the cheese out of the fridge, and of course, stop chatting and turn our minds to the task. It was the paradox of process, when we were busy you might have to stand in line, but from order to eating was a shorter time period than when you could walk right up and order.

Now our work isn’t as simple as an assembly line, but this is simply another version of the adage, if you want something done, give it to a busy person. For many of us, our days are filled with meetings and in between meetings there are phone calls, emails, and texts. Adding one more task is challenging, but we’re already moving fast. We get a lot done.

But every once in a while the stars align in a new configuration and there’s a day with nothing scheduled. Oh good, one thinks, now I can get a lot done! Speaking for myself, that’s often the day I get the fewest items checked off my list. There’s no urgency, no pressure which while lovely, often means I get a bit lazy. When that has happened I have been known to chastise myself, but the reality is that every once in a while, being a bit lazy isn’t a bad thing. Taking a moment to step away from the assembly line or the filled calendar is healthy.

It’s also an antidote to the “I’m so busy” cult. I actually remember the first time I worked with someone who always told me how busy she was. Was she insinuating that because I was doing whatever it was I had mentioned, I didn’t have enough to do or wasn’t accomplishing as much as she was? Maybe it was that she was trying to prove to me, her supervisor, that she was doing her job. Whatever the reason behind it, it was a constant refrain during the time we worked together and it was annoying. I understood her workload. It was complex and it was doable. That experience was more than twenty years ago, so this phenomenon isn’t new. It seems more wide-spread now, but is still just as much about a comparison or competition. Who is the busiest, most productive, or sometimes, most put-upon and is it me?

The reality is that work always ebbs and flows. If you work on campus, there’s a rhythm to the semesters that is often based on the particular job you do, but is mostly reliable year after year. If you are working in another industry, there will still be changes though maybe they aren’t as predictable. Being effective in our work means both getting the essential work done during the quieter days and weeks when you can take a breath and making sure you take a moment to breathe and take care of yourself in the peak periods. It’s also acknowledging just how much our busy-ness is self-created or self-caused, because sometimes we are the cause. Do we need better systems to manage our work? Do we need to sit down with a supervisor or mentor and try to adjust priorities? Maybe we need to remember we’re part of a team and ask for help or offer help to someone else. Or do we simply need to stop reflexively saying “I’m busy.” Maybe you are busy, but does everyone need to know that? I used to work with a colleague who liked to remind us of the swan – gliding elegantly across the lake while paddling furiously under the surface. I like the idea of doing my work elegantly leaving people feeling that I’m competent to do my job rather than advertising that I’m paddling furiously just to stay in place.

I try diligently not to tout how busy I am even when I’m very busy and at the same time, I try to ask for help when I need it. For me the reality is, like at the hamburger stand all those years ago, I do my best work when there’s plenty to do and I have the most fun when I’m part of a team doing good work, meeting a challenge.

And in case you were wondering, today’s reflections were started by my new schedule. It is not as full as it used to be. When I first went into consulting, I was told “we often have urgencies, but rarely emergencies.” I don’t even have urgencies right now, so the pace feels very different and I often get to the end of a day wondering why I didn’t do this or that. But the reality is that right now, I do get to choose more than I used to and I’m going to enjoy that for a while. Then we’ll see, maybe there’s another team to join or a few more things I want to add to the list.

For those of you still in the throes of a career, remember we often have more options than we give ourselves credit for. If you are feeling overwhelmed, take that deep breath and see if you can make a different decision. For my friends reading this who are retired, any suggestions? Either way, I hope each of us finds a way to enjoy the time of life we are in and to manage the work we are doing efficiently and effectively and not worry so much about whether we are busy or not.

Take care,


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