Are you busy today? Were you busy yesterday? Do you anticipate feeling busy tomorrow?
If there was ever an experience that marked out the contemporary world of work, it’s the prevalence of feeling busy.
There are so many reasons that we could feel busy and overwhelmed. Lots of these have to do with external uncontrollable factors like the kinds of workload we have to deal with. We might also have to deal with crises and unexpected requests. And sometimes life has a happy knack of combining these for us, creating some quite ‘memorable’ days.
But, when I explore the root causes of their busyness with my coaching clients, we often find there are some reasons for the busyness that have more to do with their way of working than the demands placed on them.
In this post I want to explore five of the things that can lead to a sense of being busy – and what you can do about them.
1. You rely on your memory
It’s a very basic principle of productivity, but attempting to remember all your tasks and commitments can be overwhelming in itself. And you’d be surprised at how many people place great faith in their own ability to remember everything they need to do.
One of humanity’s greatest advances was the invention of the written word. From that point on, we could outsource cognitive demands to the clay tablet/page/screen. Why ignore this evolutionary milestone and try to remember it all?
Empty all of your tasks into a list in your notebook. Or better still, a task management app, which backs up this precious information for you. Don’t assume you’ll remember where you need to be. Put time-based commitments in your calendar.
Use your mind for solving problems, creating new things and being present in the moment you’re actually in. Use your tools to keep a record of it all.
2. You over-commit with your automatic “yes”.
Does your digital calendar fill you with dread? Is there hardly any white space between meetings? You’re not alone. Whether it’s a meeting request or a colleague asking you to do something for them, your automatic “yes” can come from a good place. Your desire to be collaborative or simply helpful, for example. But the consequences of this automatic response mean your workload and commitments pile up uncontrollably.
Don’t replace “yes” with an automatic “no”, either. When you’re asked to do something, or attend something, that isn’t already on your list of priorities, pause and say you’ll have to check your existing commitments. The look at what you’re already committed to and provide an honest response.
If the request comes from your boss, ask them which of your existing priorities you’d like this to supersede. You’re giving them context of what you’re working on and avoiding a response that will lead to overwhelm (when you attempt to cram it in) or disappointment (when you fail to deliver).
Your schedule and your task list will then only consist of things that you’ve intentionally added, which is the opposite of busy. And if you’re tired of others blocking time in your diary when they believe you’re ‘free’, then block out time for your own priorities – before someone else does.
3. You don’t have clear priorities
For most knowledge workers in the 21st Century, they have far more to do than can be done in any single day. Each phone call, email, instant message, document and invitation represents a potential task.
Prioritisation is the only way to bring some clarity to a workload that could overwhelm anyone. Without priorities, everything can seem equally important and urgent. This can lead to a kind of paralysis where we can’t take action for fear of starting on the ‘wrong’ thing.
While there’s no one perfect way of prioritising, it’s incredibly important to be intentional. When your email in-box consists of other people’s needs and priorities, this can be a challenge. But as Tony Crabbe puts it in his book “Busy”:
From the perspective of urgent versus important, most offices are very hot places: distraction, requests and pressures can be found around every corner. The immediate gratification of the urgent is just so much more tempting than the long-term benefits of the important. The attraction of small, simple tasks will always beat the bigger, harder, longer-term activities.
The payoff of emptying your inbox and answering emails on your journey home will always feel more real than the benefits of taking that time to read or reflect. In our cold state we are clear what we should do and we can come up with good intentions; in our hot state, we are more inclined to think ‘just one more’.
Check out this blog post on using the Eisenhower matrix to prioritise your tasks for the day. This uses the importance and urgency referenced in the above quote and can bring real clarity to what’s begging for your attention.
Another approach is to simply identify the three most important things that you want to get done that day. Starting your day with this task can bring a sense of calm and clarity. It definitely doesn’t mean that you only do three things, but that you’re going to intentionally invest as much of your time and attention in these three things.
4. You feel busy because of your multi-tasking
In the words of Admiral Ackbar, “It’s a trap!” While we might feel like we’re getting more done, when we multi-task on complex activities, we’re just making micro-jumps in between them. Each task suffers, our anxiety increases, and the likelihood of making mistakes rises too.
Multi-tasking is indeed a trap. The more you try and get multiple things done at the same time, the more overwhelmed and busy you’ll feel. And this includes notifications. Each ping, buzz and boop drags us away from what we’re trying to focus on. So keep them to a minimum and learn how to turn them off completely.
The alternative to frantic multi-tasking is to simply focus on one of your priorities at a time. See it through to completion and then move on to the next one.
If you have lots of similar tasks to complete (e.g. responding to emails), then batch them – set a time to complete tasks that involve a similar focus, set of tools and activities. Calls can be batched, as can emails. Reading new documents. And so on. This places a lot less cognitive load on your brain than switching between very diverse tasks.
One thing at a time. Start with your list of priorities and work through it.
5. Your procrastination habit
When we irrationally delay taking action and suffer meaningful consequences, we’re procrastinating. While it’s basically part of being human – we’ve all done it from time to time – for some of us, it causes real problems. We can buy in to the various unhelpful stories we tell ourselves in an attempt to feel rational, while simultaneously storing up problems for our future selves.
When you save up too many unpleasant or uncomfortable tasks for ‘later’, one day they’re all due. In addition to the other stuff that’s come your way. And your earlier optimism can seem very misplaced, if not downright sabotaging!
Check out this video on how to beat the procrastination habit and look for ways to lean in to the discomfort of the tasks and activities you’re tempted to delay.
- Instead of relying your memory, leverage paper or a task management app.
- Insert a pause to check your commitments before you agree to anything new.
- Focus on one priority at a time.
- Establish your priorities with intention.
- See the discomfort associated with some tasks as temporary, and do them anyway.
Putting the above into practice will not automatically lead to feelings of zen-like peace. I’m sorry. But they will help minimise the chance of your own working style contributing to overwhelm and stress.
What’s one thing that’s helped you feel less busy? Share it in the comments below.