Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:


From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

Forging the Heart Through Jiu-Jitsu

I began training Brazilian jiu-jitsu this summer at the age of 40. I started training jiu-jitsu for reasons including fitness and the pursuit of a new challenge. More than anything, however, I wanted to experience the struggle and stress of a physical battle with another human, fail in that struggle, and then ultimately learn how to survive and succeed in that struggle.  I certainly found struggle, but also unexpected lessons of deep and personal meaning, which will keep me connected to jiu-jitsu for as long as I’m able to do it.

Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or BJJ for short, is a combat sport system that focuses on grappling and ground fighting.  There is no striking.  Each grappler uses his or her whole body to implement a system of clinches, grips, and holds.  Focusing on leverage and precise technique, a properly trained grappler can manipulate even a larger opponent into submission by choke or joint lock. BJJ is astounding in its complexity, and often is described as “human chess.”

I had no prior martial arts experience.  I first heard of BJJ about twenty years ago in college. A close friend was a fan of the then new Ultimate Fighting Championship , and he enthusiastically described BJJ expert Royce Gracie’s dramatic victories over larger wrestlers, boxers, and martial artists.  That was in the early 1990s, and those first UFC fights — designed to test the superiority of different martial arts systems — were an interesting curiosity but didn’t capture much of my interest at the time.

I didn’t encounter BJJ again until a year or two ago, listening to Tim Ferriss’s podcast.  A number of Ferriss’s guests, including chess master Josh Waitzkin,  neuroscientist Sam Harris, and former U.S. Navy SEAL and writer Jocko Willink, all described their practice of BJJ, their obsession over its complexity and beauty, and the personal benefits they had each experienced from practicing the art.  And so, last summer, I found myself at the age of 40 walking into a BJJ academy for an introductory one-on-one lesson.  Over the course of an hour, the instructor introduced me to some basic principles of BJJ – how to use a basic escape from being flat on your back with an attacker sitting on your chest, how to submit an opponent with an armlock, and how to apply the unbelievably effective rear naked choke, which can render a powerful man unconscious within seconds  by cutting off all blood flow to the brain.  These techniques – simple but awesome in their power – were taught in a smooth, calm, respectful manner, with a conscious awareness of their utility and the responsibility required to employ them effectively.

I was sold and signed up.  And the next day, I found myself the newest student in the academy.  Imagine standing in a new, crisp white gi on a mat with two dozen other grapplers.  You don’t know exactly how much experience each of them has, but you know every one of them is more trained than you. You pay attention to the warm up and the lesson, working slowly through the technique with a polite but unfamiliar partner.

Now imagine the “live” sparring session that follows, where you square off with that partner, who has a great deal more experience (probably years) than you.  You slap hands, bump fists, and you are then left to defend yourself against an onslaught of attacks with nothing more than your untrained instincts.  The experience is overwhelming, much like being caught in a large wave, picked up and tumbling blindly through powerful waters, desperately hoping for the moment when the surge slows and you can begin to try to reorient yourself and recover.  You try to resist, only to find that your efforts to use brute strength are no match for the superiority of technique.  Your partner captures your arm in an awkward angle and you find yourself submitting to a shoulder lock.  You start again, avoiding that last trap, only to find your arm and head caught in your partner’s encircling legs in a move called a triangle choke.  Then you fail again, and again, and again.  Class after class, you fail.

I now train BJJ two or three times each week. Each class follows the same formula.  After a brief warmup of squats, pushups, and stretches, three techniques are taught.  The first typically is a self-defense technique, and second and third are BJJ grappling techniques.  Each technique is demonstrated, and then the students pair off and drill the technique.  The final ten minutes are spent in a “live” drill, where students engage in live sparring and try to refine and use the techniques learned in classes over time.  As students progress in their learning they spend more time sparring in unscripted live training sessions.

One of the things that makes BJJ unique among martial arts is that you can train at full intensity without the same risk of injury that is present in other martial arts.  In any striking discipline, be it boxing, kickboxing, tae kwon do, or mixed martial arts, the trauma caused by kicks and punches requires participants to spar at less intensity than they would employ in a real fight.  In practicing grappling, however, the risk of blunt force trauma is not present, as no striking is permitted.  This means that two grappling students can move at full speed, with full intensity, for long sparring sessions.  This intensity allows students to test the effectiveness of attacks and defense in an environment very similar to a real-world struggle.

Of course, that intensity and the inherent complexity of BJJ makes for a formidable physical and mental challenge, especially for a beginner.  And in that challenge, which often leads to failure, I found lessons even greater than the techniques themselves:

The Importance of Humility

BJJ makes you humble.  Or, perhaps more precisely, it requires you to be humble.  Because if you cannot summon humility, and lots of it, your ego will never allow you to return to class again.  In BJJ, your opponent wins by submission – by submitting you.  “Submit” derives from Latin, literally meaning “to put under.”  And in BJJ, your opponent only wins by submission when you tap out, when you admit that you’ve been beaten, when you admit that your opponent has submitted you.  In tapping, you literally  are admitting that your opponent has put you under him or herself, that your technique was inferior to theirs.

There is no room for ego here.  If you study BJJ for any period of time, you will tap out and submit hundreds, eventually thousands of times.  If you give in to ego, give your ego too much power, you will never experience anything other than embarrassment or frustration in failure.  In contrast, approaching these moments with humility allows you to self-reflect, ask questions, accept advice, and most importantly – improve your game.

This principle is applicable in many phases of life.  Ego is dangerous. If we think we are too good to fail, or underestimate our opponents, we become vulnerable to surprise and we risk falling short of our goals.  On the other hand, if we are open and accepting of our mistakes, our weaknesses, our challenges, we can learn from past experience, adjust accordingly, and remain focused on our goals.  If your goal is improvement, be humble.

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable

How often to you seek out discomfort?  When you’re uncomfortable, what are you focused on?  Are you fighting to end the discomfort?  Or can you dig deep and remain focused on the goal, even if it means working through an uncomfortable moment and enduring, while you watch things develop?  I believe that we collectively have lost our ability to be comfortable with discomfort, and that as a result, we’ve lost opportunities to find betterment through pain.

In BJJ, there is an offensive move called a stack pass.  A stack pass is an attack where a grappler hooks both arms under your legs while you are on your back, and then drives forward until your knees are essentially buried in your eyeballs, if not behind your ears. He then slides around sideways until he can drop his weight on your torso and take control of your upper body.  It hurts.  It bends your spine into a painfully compressed curve, it stretches your hamstrings into lengths they’ve never known, and it smashes your eight inch neck into a three inch space between your flattened shoulders and the mat.  And it takes a long time.

Faced with this predicament, in the middle of a stack pass, you essentially have two options.  One, you can quit.  Quitting can mean rolling over, giving your back to a choke, flailing without purpose and exhausting yourself, or just lying there like a limp noodle with no plan.  Two, you can endure the discomfort patiently, but with focus, until a new opportunity presents itself.  Obviously, the latter choice is the right one.  The secret is that it’s not as hard as it seems.  But it requires comfort with discomfort.

We deal with hard times all the time.  We can’t control the circumstances of these moments, and we often cannot control the outcome.  But we can control the attitude we face challenges with.  In fact, our response to challenge is the one thing that no one can ever take away from us.  But we can never seize that power unless we take a deep breath, prepare to endure, and then get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

The Long Road

Jiu-jitsu is a long road.  Some people say that the path to a black belt is ten years, although there are many students who have experienced longer roads than that.  It is impossible to walk such a long road if you find motivation only in ego or short-term satisfaction.  One can walk this path to satisfaction only if he or she has committed to process, to routine, to small gains.  I feel as though I have not walked far enough to even see the beginning of the path over the horizon, but I am heading towards the trailhead.

Winston Churchill said, ““Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” And that is what is most apparent to me in my very, very short exposure to BJJ.  Betterment lies in the willingness to do the hard thing, to do the difficult thing.  Betterment lies in the willingness to expose yourself to trial and fire and pain and humiliation.  Betterment lies in becoming comfortable with mistakes and failure and weakness, because if we are blind to these things, we will never see the path to conquering them.

I intend to keep walking the path.  I expect it to hurt.  I expect it to be hard.  I’m comfortable with that.  Greater things lie past the pain.


Four Ways to Develop Learning Agility and Improve Perspective

There is a method to the way you learn, and it is personal to you.  If you’re not paying close attention, you won’t have thought about the assumptions you make and behavioral patterns you rely upon when you make decisions, think, and act.  Approximately 30 to 50% of executives experience some kind of executive or management derailment in the course of their careers.  Research suggests that this stagnation and underperformance can be attributed to a person’s failure to update his or her mental frameworks in the wake of new experience.

In other words, you can and should be learning from the breadth of your personal and professional experiences to develop systematic thinking.  Monique Valcour in Harvard Business Review describes this skill as “learning agility,” or “the capacity for rapid, continuous learning from experience.”

Agile learners are good at making connections across experiences, and they’re able to let go of perspectives or approaches that are no longer useful — in other words, they can unlearn things when novel solutions are required. People with this mindset tend to be oriented toward learning goals and open to new experiences. They experiment, seek feedback, and reflect systematically.

Develop a desire to improve

How do you develop learning agility?  Its foundation is a desire to improve through (1) the development of new skills and (2) succeeding in new situations.

Agile learners value and derive satisfaction from the process of learning itself, which boosts their motivation as well as their capacity to learn from  challenging developmental experiences.

By finding internal value in the process of learning through new experiences, agile learners “don’t get defensive” and are more “willing to take risks.”  The benefit to this mindset becomes clear when you consider being confronted with a new, uncomfortable, scary experience.  Instead of fearing moving outside of their comfort zone or risking public critique through open discussion, an agile learner broadens experience and improves his or her mental toolkit by taking advantage of the opportunity to learn in a new environment.

Four Mental Tools You Can Use to Sharpen Your Learning Agility

There are discrete practical tools you can use to improve your ability to learn from experience in meaningful ways.

1.      Ask for feedback.

Think of one or more people who interacted with you or observed your performance on a given task. Tell them you’d value their perspective on how you did, and ask what you could do differently the next time. To maximize learning from their feedback — and this is vital — restrain any urge to defend yourself. Thank them for their input, and then ask yourself what you can learn.

This practice depends on your mindset, and will not work if you cling to defensiveness.  Google’s Director of Executive Coaching and Leadership, David Peterson simplifies this into a retrievable motto: “There has to be a better way, and I don’t know it yet.”

The power of the motto lies in the word “yet.” As research on growth mindset by psychologist Carol Dweck has found, if you hold the view that there is always more to learn and embrace the process of wading into unfamiliar waters, you can free your thinking, dissolve your fear of failure, and power your success.

2.     Test Out New Mental Models and Approaches

Expanding your mental toolkit requires you to test and retest different perspectives, models, and approaches.

To identify new behaviors for testing, Peterson recommends reflecting on a challenge you’re facing and asking yourself questions such as “What’s one thing I could do to change the outcome of the situation?” and “What will I do differently in the future?” You can also conduct thought experiments, unearthing possibilities from trying out a different point of view. For example, one of my clients was concerned about leading the first team development offsite with her new team of highly talented country managers. With some reflection, she realized that she had gotten stuck in the perspective that in order to be seen as credible, she had to know more than they did. Since she was new, this was impossible. Holding on to that perspective would have caused her stress and undermined her credibility. By letting go of the assumption that she had to be the subject-matter expert and adopting the perspective that she could add greater value as a facilitator, she was able to design and carry out a meeting at which creative ideas flowed freely. The team, which had previously suffered from poor coordination, developed more collaborative relationships.

We all have biases in our decision-making, many of them hidden from our own view.  This is why developing a broad set of mental models is so important — they cause you to shift perspective and unroot hidden traps in your thinking.  Checking your assumptions and testing new approaches to familiar scenarios will allow you to explore effectiveness of these ideas.

3.     Understand cross-disciplinary connections

This is a key to reaping value from new experiences.  Studying and reading broadly provides you with little value if you do not let new ideas cross-pollenate and fertilize your other areas of knowledge.

Peterson has systematically applied principles he’s used to learn about wine to the domain of leadership development. Oenologists develop expertise by trying many different wines, comparing them, and discussing them with fellow experts. Borrowing these principles, Peterson realized that he could extend his mastery of leadership development by seeking out a wide variety of leaders to coach, comparing leaders to each other on various qualities, and discussing leaders with other experts.

You must have an area of expertise that on its face, has nothing to do with your profession.  But think harder and more deeply to see the connections.  How can you apply the lessons you learned during one area to the other.  This is one benefit of reading broadly across a wide variety of subjects – an understanding of seemingly unrelated areas of study will, upon reflection, turn into a network of mental models that help you approach and solve problems in new ways.

4.   Review and reflect.

To understand the lessons learned from new experience, you need to systematically reflect on those experiences.

A growing body of research shows that systematically reflecting on work experiences boosts learning significantly.  To ensure continuous progress, get into the habit of asking yourself questions like “What have I learned from this experience?” and “What turned out differently than I expected?” Leaders who demonstrate and encourage reflection not only learn more themselves, they also spur increased contextual awareness and reflective practice in others, thereby laying a foundation for higher levels of learning agility in their teams and organizations.

Make time to do this.  Put it on your calendar, and don’t let anything get in the way.  In my experience, review provides the most value if you do it regularly and purposefully.  My weekly reviews let me focus on details, tasks, and short-term goals.  Monthly reviews let me think about bigger lessons learned from projects and check progress towards annual goals. Quarterly and annual reviews let me take stock on my alignment with long-term and life goals.

Go and Seek out the New

Once you have built a desire for improvement and understand these practices, go and seek out new experiences, people, and information.  Valcour highlights the difference you can expect between career development and career stagnation by pointing to examples:

Learning agility also involves being open to new experiences, people, and information. Two senior management professors I’ve encountered at academic conferences over the years exemplify opposite ends of the spectrum. Professor A has a voracious appetite for new ideas. Despite his lofty academic stature, he converses just as enthusiastically with graduate students and junior faculty from little-known universities as he does with fellow academic stars, and he collaborates with a wide variety of scholars. Well into his 70s, he’s vibrant, energetic, and recognized as an active leader in his research domain. Professor B, by contrast, shows little interest in scholars outside of his familiar circle of followers. His presentations generally rehash old ideas; it’s been a long time since he produced anything new. Although he made many important contributions earlier in his career, the low level of learning agility he exhibits now accompanies his fading reputation. He’s fallen into the exact career trap the CEO is seeking to avoid.

artwork: By Peter Pöml [CC BY-SA 1.0 (