Are you overwhelmed at work or in life? Are you too busy? It’s nearly impossible in the modern world to seize control of every external aspect of your work, home, and personal life. But by understanding “busyness,” you can reorient and reengage with your life in a meaningful way.
What is Busy?
Tony Crabbe gives us a modern definition of “busy” in Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much:
“Busy” is that frenetic, always alert multitasking that propels us through overburdened lives. It involves being always “on,” glancing regularly at our phones and jumping from task to task. It is the juggling, cramming and rushing that makes up so much of our daily existence. It is urgency, distraction and exhaustion.
We’re busier than ever because we create and consume more information than ever before. And it becomes easier every year for other people to reach you and bombard you with emails, texts, pings, and tweets. While in 1986 the average worker produced about two newspaper pages of content each day, by 2011 this amount had risen to about six complete newspapers every day.
This kind of exponential growth is a disruptive and nonlinear problem, according to writer and statistician Nassim Taleb. Taleb gives the example of automobile traffic. A small increase in traffic on a quiet road makes little difference. Small increases have minimal impact, until a point of congestion, when small increases quickly lead to gridlock. You are facing the same traffic jam with your email, notifications, and to-do lists.
Being Busy is Bad for You
Constant busyness is bad for your health:
It isn’t any specific intensity of stress or exertion that is bad for us; it is the persistence. The body and the brain aren’t designed to be always on. The body is designed for switching between active and passive states: to fire up into an adrenaline-fueled, alert state, and then cool down to a calmer one.
Busyness also stops you from reaching your goals. It’s hard to set aside time to focus on important work. The interruption and temptation of a new email is always present.
We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices. We allow the world and our inbox to set our agenda, rather than think for ourselves. It’s easier to simply react; to choose to try to do everything, rather than make the difficult decisions and unchoose things—it takes more courage to do less.
Strategies to Become Less Busy
Faced with the crushing weight of an endless inbox, you might be tempted to work even harder. If you could just fine tune your productivity system, you’d be able to stay ahead of emails and get on to important work, right? Wrong.
The key is to know the opposite of busy: “The opposite of busy is not relaxation…[it] is sustained, focused attention.”
How can you develop sustained, focused attention in the midst of so many demands? Crabbe urges us to focus on mastering our attention and reengaging with our lives. Mastery is “the willingness to let go of our need for control,” and requires “shifting our focus from managing time to managing attention.”
Managing attention requires you to make tough choices to protect the time you need to do your most important work. This requires an active and conscious choice on your part. For example, on a particularly busy day, Gandhi was heard to say, “Today will be a busy day. I won’t be able to meditate for an hour. I’ll have to meditate for two.” You cannot control the incoming demands, but you can control how you direct your attention.
Crabbe urges you to try the following strategies:
1. Say “no.” This can be difficult, especially with demanding bosses and clients. But it’s necessary and worth it. Use Greg McKeown’s “90% rule” when evaluating an option. If the single most important criterion isn’t at least a 9 out of 10, reject the opportunity.
2. Switch off – Choose specific and set times to check in with email and messages. Never before bed.
3. Turn off notifications – It’s amazing how much peace you can find if your phone doesn’t ding with every email. Try it.
4. Kill meetings – Some meetings are necessary, but most are not worth your time. Cancel one today.
5. Double your time estimates – Double the amount of time you estimate a task will take. You’ll find room to think and do better work in that time.
6. Watch the clock – Remember how much work you get done the last day before vacation? Strict time awareness creates efficiencies. Be aware of the clock, and then…
7. Finish on time – Burning the midnight oil won’t help your work quality or you. When the day is over, put down your pen.
8. Prime your brain for difficult tasks – We often procrastinate over difficult and complex problems. Let your subconscious work on the problem by doing an early review or mind map of the problem before you sit down to work on it.
Final Thoughts on Expert Strategies to Be Less Busy
Perpetual busyness arises from your desire to maintain control of every input and demand in your life. True control comes from abandoning that impossible chase and refocusing on the work that you value:
We have to accept that we will never be in control again; there are too many demands on our time. Instead we should aim to gain a sense of mastery in our lives by letting go of our need for control, by making brutal choices, by managing our attention and by negotiating our life back.
German designer Dieter Rams famously said, “Weniger, aber besser,” or “Less, but better.” Protect your time. Do more by doing less.