As a society we are increasingly busy year after year. And it’s stressing us out. What’s worse is that the busier we get, the less we seem to accomplish. Today I’m talking about the ways we can cut back on busyness and instead be more productive and have more free time.
One of the biggest challenges of the modern era has been our 24/7 connectedness. Sure it’s great to be able to phone a tow truck at 3am when you’ve broken down in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not so great when that means your boss can call you right in the middle of your kid’s birthday dinner.
The problem, however, isn’t the technology, but the way we use it. It’s not your phone’s fault that you didn’t turn off email notifications and now you’re seeing them fly in during your romantic date night.
It’s also not your phones decision to respond to them.
So what’s going on here? While no one has a gun to your head forcing you to fill your hours with work, it still may feel that way. There’s an enormous bias in the US to believe that if you’re busy, then you are important.
This sentiment has bled into our culture so deeply that they’ve been able to see it in studies. While infinite leisure time a la Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with the yachts and summer homes, used to be the status symbol, now it’s the busy executive who parses her time in three minute increments that’s the lifestyle we worship.
Think about the last time you ran into someone you hadn’t seen in awhile. When they asked you how you were, what did you say? Was it, just taking it easy, not much to do or the more likely good, but soooo busy.
When you think about someone who has a lot of free time to just hang around versus someone who is busily flitting here and there – which person seems more impressive?
America is a country where we believe that hard work and dedication will lead you to a better life. It is the American dream after all. However, just because you are busy doesn’t mean you’re accomplishing much. And all this busyness doesn’t just waste your time and energy, it can also have a negative impact on your health in the form of stress.
HIT THE GROUND RUNNING
Whether you work in an office, at home, or stay at home as a caretaker, it’s likely that from the moment your eyes pop open in the morning you have to be “on”.
You might check your emails before you get out of bed, have clients calling you before you’re dressed, or kids telling you they have a bake sale today they forgot to tell you about. Before you’ve had a cup of coffee you’re putting out fires.
And just like, that the whole day gets derailed. You go from one “emergency” to another, just trying to keep your head above water. Even if the things you’re doing aren’t the most important things, they are the most immediate things – often the easiest things. Because easy and immediate are all you can think about in your stressed out state.
This constant low level of stress causes us to have tunnel vision which has been shown to temporarily reduce your IQ. Basically, all you can see is what’s right in front of you and you don’t have the mental capacity to plan or find a creative way out. You just do.
But just doing isn’t the most effective way to accomplish a project. We often feel like planning is a waste of time, but planning at the beginning and reflecting at the end actually make us more effective.
Imagine two different commutes. One through the city and one on the highway. The city has lights and stop and go traffic. The highway is clear. Which one would you take? I’m guessing most of you would take the highway. I know I would.
Now what if I told you the highway actually took longer? Would you still take it? Most of us would still probably choose the highway even if it took several minutes longer just so we wouldn’t have to just sit there at lights. Because sitting idle feels like wasting time.
This mentality creeps into our work and personal lives too. If we find any free time in our schedules we fill it up. If we have a slow period at work, we take on busy work.
Eventually our schedules become so filled that all we can do is run around putting out fires all day. This often causes us to get little meaningful work gets done, which means that the real work gets pushed into our free time. Good bye work-life balance, hello burnout.
If you’re reading this, you’re probably so far down the busyness road, it just feels like your life now. It doesn’t have to be like this, though. While you could just dump a whole bunch of unimportant tasks or commitments (or at the very least delegate them), people that are extremely busy often find a sudden shift into free time disconcerting.
If you’re anything like me (hello type A) you may struggle to delegate or let go at all. Which may have been how you got here in the first place.
Either way, you’re still overly busy and need to figure out how to release some of it.
CUT BACK, FIRST
The first step is to figure out what your worst busyness habit is. Are you on your phone so much that you should just have it surgically attached? Do you respond to emails at 3 am or before you’ve even gotten out of bed in the morning? Do you say yes to anything and everything without considering the value of the offer?
If you’re struggling to think about what might be the cause of your busyness, think about what your friends or family say? Do they complain that you’re always on your phone at dinner, or that you’re too busy with other commitments to do anything with them? Do they simply tell you work too much?
While the opinions of others shouldn’t control your life, the commentary of those closest to you will give you an idea about what’s going on. It’s easy for us to develop blind spots to our destructive behaviors or to find ways to justify them to ourselves.
Once you’ve figured out what the most troubling behavior is, try to cut it back by 10-20%. If you normally work 80 hours a week, cut back to 72. If you normally have 15 commitments a week (meetings, calls, demos, etc) cut back by 1-2. Or consider which activities and organizations are the MOST important and completely cut one that didn’t make the list.
THEN, BUILD IN SLACK
As I’ve discussed before, humans are TERRIBLE at figuring out how much time and energy a big project is going to take. Things we don’t want to do we will blow out of proportion (the dishes will take HOURS!) and things we’re excited about won’t be that hard (I’ll have 5,000 followers by the end of the week!)
Knowing this, we can begin to take steps to help ourselves out. One of the best ways to do this is to build slack time into our schedules.
Leave a few hours in your week towards the end that is just for catch up. It doesn’t have to be a whole day but 2-4 hours where you can catch up on the projects that you thought would be easy and turned out to be monsters.
This helps prevent you from being forced to reach into your free time just to meet deadlines. And if you end up not needing it, these hours are a great time to get ahead, plan the next big thing, or to get the important face to face time that goes by the wayside in our digital world.
TAKE TIME FOR LIFE
Because of our connectedness it’s very easy for our work to bleed over into personal time without us noticing. Even if you’re not working on a project in your off hours, you might still be accepting phone calls or checking/responding to emails.
Gone are the days when you could actually leave work at the office. Now it goes with you everywhere in your pocket. So in order to stop working you have to make your own boundaries around what is important enough to deal with on off hours, and what can wait til tomorrow.
Set an end time for work and stick to it. If there’s someone in your office that checks out at 6pm and won’t get back to you until tomorrow, for nothing or nobody, then you will probably learn pretty quick that you had better get things to them before 6. The same goes for you, if you stand fast on your boundaries, you will teach other people to honor them.
And while you’re setting boundaries, remember to take some downtime from your devices. Once you check out in the evening ditch your screens for awhile. Even an hour off each day will give you a real reprieve from the low level stress that comes from knowing someone could call or email at any moment.
Being busy seems like the new normal today. But being overly busy is detrimental to our physical and mental wellbeing. You might be using busy as a status symbol or as a way to distract yourself from a life that’s not going the way you had planned.
Regardless of your reasons, it’s time to take a step back and rein your days in. Once you get back to a realistic schedule for yourself, you will have the mental capacity again to run your life — instead of it running you (into the ground).