How often do we answer the question “How’s it going?” with “Busy!” Everyone is busy. Busy has become the norm, our default mode. But it has also become strangely aspirational. As much as we complain about being busy, we’re also strangely resistant to being not busy. Think about it – when was the last time you heard anyone admitting to not being busy?
So what is it about being busy that keeps us so busy? Here are three lies that keep us in the busy trap.
1. “I haven’t got time”
My daughter said this to me the other day when I asked her about her flute practice. “I’m too busy!”
What had she been so busy with? Mainly Netflix.
It’s easy to laugh when it’s this obvious, but what are the things we find ourselves saying we don’t have time for, because we’re too busy? Perhaps it’s the long term strategic thinking because we’re so busy with the day to day. Or the innovation because we’re so busy with maintaining the status quo. Or the time management training because we don’t seem to have time…
Perhaps it’s our health we don’t have time for. In 2010, the American Psychological Association’s Stress In America report found that
“In general, Americans recognize that their stress levels remain high and exceed what they consider to be healthy. Adults seem to understand the importance of healthy behaviors like managing their stress levels, eating right, getting enough sleep and exercise, but they report experiencing challenges practicing these healthy behaviors. They report being too busy as a primary barrier preventing them from better managing their stress…”
Dr. Susan Koven of Massachusetts General Hospital wrote in her 2013 Boston Globe column: “In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”
The truth is, our imagination will always surpass our capacity. There will always be more to do than there is time to do it all. But busy has a way of skewing our priorities.
2. “It’s not important or urgent”
I was on the panel for the Guardian’s Live Q&A on how to be more productive at work some time ago. What struck me was how many questions were actually to do with life outside of work. Several people mentioned how they feel pretty productive at work, but find that when it comes to life outside of work – self-care, personal goals, life admin, housework, catching up with friends – it never happens, because it never makes it out of the ‘Neither Important nor Urgent’ box.
The Eisenhower Important vs Urgent matrix is a traditional time management tool designed to help people prioritize what they say yes to, and what they say no to. The idea is that you prioritize the “Urgent and Important”, then move onto the “Important but not Urgent”. Ideally, you delegate the “Urgent but not Important” and delete or decline the “Neither Important nor Urgent”.
For the busy person, ‘life outside of work’ falls squarely into the ‘Neither Important nor Urgent’ box. Occasionally if there’s a family emergency, or the boiler’s broken, or the car MOT is due – then it becomes Urgent – but rarely does personal life make it into the Important category. Which is why it gets put on hold, waiting for when there’s more time, which of course never happens.
It comes down to this: How do you define important?
Is it just “bad things happen if I don’t” or does it include “good things happen if I do?” If we don’t look after our health then it’s not until we burnout that we recognize how important it was. But if we redefine ‘important’ as what affects our ability to do good work, then surely our health, well-being and personal life become vitally important.
And is it just what’s important to others? Or does it include what’s important to you? Many of us prioritize other people’s needs over our own. We see promises we make to others as fixed commitments we have to meet, while our own personal goals are more often intentions, hopes and dreams we keep meaning to get round to. Sometimes we can use that to our advantage by making an external commitment to tie in with our personal goals, but it’s also worth remembering that everything that affects you would also affect those you care about and work for. Who you are matters and what affects your ability to show up at your best is worth considering as important.
If we’re going to break out of the cycle of excessive busyness, it’s time we redefined important.
3. “I just need to get more done”
Busy focuses on quantity, not quality, on getting more done, rather than getting the right things done, or even asking what the right things might be. When faced with too much to do and and not enough time, the pressure is on to just get as much done as possible, but as Tim Ferris puts it: “Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action”
People often tell me they don’t give themselves time to think – especially when things are busy – because thinking doesn’t feel like work. It’s a remnant of the industrial age, when our work was highly visible and measurable. When we’re thinking, no one can see what we’re doing, so it feels like we’re not working.
We end up favoring the activities that look and feel like we’re doing something. We send another email. We have another meeting. In the relentless pursuit of busy, we forget to distinguish between the fake work and the real work, because we don’t give ourselves time to think. And all we end up doing is working harder, longer hours, and getting ever more busy.
Time to Tell the Truth
The problem with busy is that it’s a meaningless, mindless word that just creates more busyness. Let’s stop talking about how busy we are, and start talking about what we’re actually busy with, and whether that’s giving us the results we want – in work and in life.
Let’s talk about our capacity, our focus and our purpose. Maybe then we can have some more truthful conversations around where we’re over-committed, where we need to draw boundaries, increase clarity, apply some Ninja Ruthlessness and acknowledge that we are Human, not Superhero.
Let’s stop wearing busy like a badge of honor. Busy is not the goal, and being busy does not make you productive. The things we sometimes see as unproductive or even a waste of time are sometimes . And the things we sometimes mistake for work can be the very things that stop us from being able to do our best work.
Let’s start taking responsibility for our – our ability to do our best work, give our best to those we care for, in a way that does us good. Because let’s face it, that’s what is means to be truly productive. Let’s choose what we make time for, rather than let busy dictate what we haven’t got time for.
I’m done being busy. How about you?
By Grace Marshall
Grace Marshall is one of our very own Productivity Ninjas. She is also the author of How to be REALLY productive, winner of the CMI Management Book of the Year 2017 Commuter’s Read award, blogs at Grace-Marshall.com