Upon catching up with friends and industry colleagues, I face the usual question, "How are you?" and my knee-jerk reply is, "Busy! Good, but busy" (and then I let out an exasperated sigh). Frankly, I'm embarrassed by my answer and tired of sounding like a broken record – one that used to play fun songs you'd want to dance around to in the kitchen, but now only plays sounds of melancholy. And I know I'm not alone.
I admit to being a Type A overachiever, and not just at work but in life, too. I like to keep busy and to be involved in groups and activities that challenge and inspire me. It's my nature. It's in my DNA and to change it would be like asking a zebra not to have stripes, or to try to have fewer of them. "Do less" does not compute in my brain. I say yes to every opportunity and volunteer to be the change agent when I see things that can be made better. I make (and keep) many commitments, and as a result, others see me as a capable, reliable, high-performer. But busyness can become a business of its own, one that isn't profitable or sustainable for its owner.
Being busy is not a symbol of status or success. Involvement does not imply importance, although we feel we matter more when others call upon us. But taking on more means you're giving less of yourself to each of those things, and ultimately, being oversubscribed causes burnout and unhappiness... and for some, guilt about the burnout and unhappiness (because what do we superhuman rock stars have to be unhappy about?!).
Avoiding the busy trap is tough, especially in today's connected economy. Others expect us to be accessible 24/7, and we are. In an effort to achieve "work-life balance," we have stopped compartmentalizing our time and activities now meld together, which means we're never fully present, and our attention spans are diminishing. [BRAVO if you've made it this far into this blog post!] We find ourselves in one place physically and in 3-5 other places mentally. We're trying to find more time for family and friends, and yet we're checking email and social media at every spare second while with them. (If you think I'm exaggerating, I urge you to go out to a restaurant and see how many couples are sitting across from one another, each silent and staring down at a bright screen. We are in a digital zombie apocalypse.) We think we're more productive this way and that multitasking is a strength, but the truth is, being overly busy is counterproductive to our mind and body.
Here are a few "busyness hacks" I'm working on to set a more realistic pace and achieve balance and happiness [key words being "working on" - slowing down takes practice]:
Shortening my daily to-do list to the three most crucial items. I'm a big believer in Stephen R. Covey's important versus urgent quadrant, a method for time management found in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (Here is a great explanation and tool to practice this.) But what do you do when everything feels like it's both urgent and important? I prioritize only three tasks, where these MUST happen today or I am not going to be able to move forward on other items.
Blocking out time on my calendar to accomplish my priorities. Starting is usually the hardest part, so setting a time to work on things, just like I would set a meeting with a colleague, holds me accountable to this commitment... and, setting a time constraint means that I can't afford to be a perfectionist. This is practical for both work and life tasks. That long-distance friend you've been meaning to call for 6 months, but haven't because you know it's going to be a two-hour catch-up... set a phone date!
Remembering that "No" is a perfectly acceptable decision – and it does not need to be further justified or rationalized to others. Saying no to one thing means saying yes to something else, and that something else may be my sanity.
Not totally giving up on physical fitness. It's the first thing I drop when I'm overly busy because I lack the energy to put myself through a grueling workout (and because honestly, I don't love working out, so I can easily justify my way out of it). But exercise should be the last thing to fall off my plate as it simultaneously benefits my body and mind. Not only does it keep me in good shape and provide endorphins that help to manage stress, sleep better and feel more positive, but sometimes that 30-60 minutes is the only "me time" I get during the day. For that reason alone, I am working hard to keep fitness on my priority list!
#TakeAction – Spend one day being conscious of how you spend your time. Write down each activity and how long it took you. Where can you afford to make a different choice? How would it make you feel if you did?