For most of my working life, I’ve felt way too busy. In recent years I’ve thought about that time with a mix of regret & remorse—I largely blamed myself for not taking the time to prioritize my work. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see how I was trapped in the busy paradox.
The busy paradox explained
When we’re busy—that feeling that we have too much to do and not enough time to do it—stress hormones are released in our body and our attention and ability to focus narrow. This phenomenon is known as tunneling, where we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low-impact, tasks right in front of us. Research has shown that we lose about 13 IQ points in this state—equivalent to the loss of an entire night’s sleep. (Yes, you read right!).
We run around reacting to everyone and everything around us—constantly answering emails, racing to meetings, putting out fires, and getting to the end of the day realizing that we haven’t even gotten around to doing our most important tasks for the day. So we regularly work in the evenings and on weekends which means less time to pursue our hobbies or spend time with loved ones.
If this is your current reality—as it was mine for a long time—you’re not making time to meet your long-term goals or to keep those priorities front and center. On the contrary, focusing on short-term tasks is what’s keeping you stuck in the busy trap. You’re not dealing with any of the root causes that led to your busyness in the first place.
Many chronically busy people may not even be consciously aware of the extent to which the busyness trap controls their lives. According to Thomas L. DeLong, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, the following questions are a good indicator of where you fall on the busyness spectrum:
- Do you believe your work allows you to move toward a specific and important goal — greater responsibility, learning a key new skill, achieving a capstone position?
- Are you addicted to your smartphone? Are you constantly checking for messages? Are you unable to sustain conversations with work colleagues or family or friends without regularly checking?
- When things slow down at work, do you feel guilty? Do you find it impossible to take a vacation when things are slow? Do you attempt to fill your free work time with meaningless and boring tasks?
- If you’re busy, what percentage of that work is meaningful and challenging? What percentage could be delegated to a subordinate without any drop-off in effectiveness? What percentage could be ignored completely without negative consequences?
- Have your family or friends ever commented on your need to feel important? Do they make fun of your inability to stop talking about work-related matters or enjoy personal time without communicating via cell phone or email?
(“The Busyness Trap“ by Thomas J. DeLong – HBR)
Once you are aware of your tendencies you are in a better place to tackle specific issues. While everyone has to find his or her best way of getting these behaviors under control, here are some tactics that you may find useful.
Cut down on your worst busyness behavioral patterns:
If you spend 3 hours a day answering emails, try to reduce that time by 15 minutes; if you average 4 hours a day on your phone, try to cut back to 3.5 hours. Now busy is not bad. The goal here is to escape the busyness trap, and you can do so if you just reduce your worst busyness behaviors in small increments. This will free time you can use to try new ideas and approaches.
Do your most important task first every day:
We often assume that productivity means getting more things done each day. However, productivity is getting important things done consistently. If you do the most important thing first each day, then you’ll always get something important done. I don’t know about you, but this is a big deal for me. There used to be many days when I wasted hours crossing off the 5th, 6th, or 7th most important tasks on my to-do list and never got around to doing the most important thing. You can download my free productivity accelerator blueprint here.
Find ways to reduce stress and refuel:
There are both physical and psychological approaches to reduce stress and refuel. The physical solutions are straightforward: Get enough sleep, don’t skip meals, eat healthy, drink a lot of water, and exercise regularly. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel once you start incorporating a healthy dose of all four into your routine. Psychological approaches to reduce stress and refuel include meditation, deep breathing exercises, spending time with loved ones, journaling, nature walks, listening to relaxing music, just to name a few. It’s important to note that there is no predetermined solution here. The key is to discover your own, one that works for you and your lifestyle, and making the commitment to incorporate it into your life.
Set response time expectations:
Email can take up massive amounts of time, especially when others expect you to reply quickly. Try setting expectations about responses and response times, and avoid replies that ask vague or open-ended questions. Instead, think through possible next steps and questions your correspondent might ask, and answer them proactively.
Change your perception:
Lastly, to overcome busyness change your perception of what great work really looks like. Right now, your perception might be that the ideal worker is the one who comes to work early, rushes through lunch, stays late, emails at all hours, and prioritizes work over everything. A healthier, more productive, and more sustainable perception of the ideal worker might be someone who does great work (output over hours worked), is well-rested and healthy, and has a great life outside of work—not someone who’s always busy and on the road to burnout.
In the end, the biggest difference between being busy and being productive is the way we approach work. Some feel constrained by outside forces: bosses, coworkers, clients, technology. In other words, they approach work from the outside in. Others do the opposite. They decide first what they must achieve and then they take the steps to realize their goals while refusing to let other people, technology, or organizational constraints dictate their choices. This is the inside out approach to work and it’s the difference between being busy and being productive.
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