- Elon Musk, Investor & Entrepreneur
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in today’s world. There are so many things to do, and you’re busy all the time.
But are you really? And how much of that is self-inflicted “busyness”? What’s actually stopping you from slowing down and not being busy?
Here are some simple steps to stop yourself from falling into the “busy trap” in your work and personal life, and hopefully how you can escape the trap if you have.
ASK YOURSELF IF BEING BUSY IS A GOOD OR NECESSARY
It’s easy to find yourself becoming busy, overwhelmed with tasks and obligations, without ever stopping to think if any of it will be worthwhile. It’s what everyone around you does. In fact, being busy seems like it’s all anyone talks about some days.
So before anything else, take a giant step back and ask yourself is being busy a good thing? Not the way you’re busy, or the things keeping you busy, but just busyness in general. Is being busy good for you? Is it how you want to live? Is it how you want the world around you to work?
Probably not, right?
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything you’re doing is necessary and inescapable, but that’s the trap talking. The first thing you need to do is step back and decide, no matter what’s going on, if you really want, need, or can afford to keep being this busy.
DO A COMPLETE INVENTORY OF THE THINGS THAT ARE KEEPING YOU BUSY
Take time to sit down with your calendar, and see what obligations you have. Better yet, commit to spending a week tracking where your time goes. Not just the big things you’d put in your calendar, but small things too, like errands, phone calls, and last-minute projects. Keep track of how often you check and reply to your email.
Once you’ve done that, take a good long look at all the things that keep you busy. It’s helpful to go in with a specific criteria, like an Eisenhower Matrix.
An Eisenhower Matrix requires you to ask two simple questions about each task you’ve recorded: is it urgent? And is it important? The idea is that items that are both urgent and important you prioritize, or keep where they are. Items that are neither can be cut entirely. Items that are only one or the other can be planned or delegated.
You can use other criteria too: things you want vs need to do. Worth the time vs. worth the money. Even a simple numbering system for how important you think each task is.
This might seem like more that you have to do in the short term, but it’s an investment in your time and mental health.
The key is to move beyond the trap of “I have to do this” being an impulse that you react to, and not a tool you use to build your schedule.
SCHEDULES AND ROUTINES
If you’re used to handling things as they come up, or ignoring them until they reach a crisis point, the idea of creating schedules and routines to deal with those obligations is going to seem like more work.
This is why taking careful inventory of how you’re spending your time is such an important step. Checking your email every 15 minutes might keep you from having to reply to 2 or 3 at once, but it means you never get more than 15 uninterrupted minutes to focus on other projects. Instead, consider having specific times when you check your email, like the beginning, middle, and end of the workday. If you have a recurring or weekly project, schedule time each day to do part of it.
Once these practices become routine, you’ll feel more in control of your day. You won’t be harried by constant distractions, looming deadlines, and busywork.
So by this point, you’ve made a decision to not be busy, you’ve taken inventory of what’s keeping busy, and you have plans for how you’re going to simplify your work and home life. You’re going to feel a huge temptation to make all these changes at once. To strike a revolutionary blow against busyness.
In fact, that’s the last thing you want to do. The key to avoiding busyness is routines, and it takes time to build routines. If you try to make all these changes at once, you’re going to feel even busier. Or you’ll oversimplify, find yourself looking for other things to do, and fill the openings you fought so hard to make with other kinds of busyness.
Instead, look for the smallest, simplest change you can make. Then, stick to that change for at least a week before you start to make more changes. This will do two things.
First, it’s going to log a victory in your mind. It’ll take escaping the busy trap from something you want to do, and turn it into something you can do, and are doing.
Second, it’ll give you a better foundation for the next change you make. Having one routine makes it easier to modify it, or add another. And ideally, this first routine will free up time and headspace and give you a clear view of what the next best step will be.
The world around you is going to actively resist you trying to make these changes, and without you realising it you could find yourself dragged back into old habits.
Worse, some of the small habits you started building might be working against you now that you’ve built more routines around them.
So take careful stock as often as you need to. Don’t be afraid to start over and abandon what’s not working.
The busy trap is sort of like debt. The world around us makes it easy to fall into without noticing, or thinking it’s in any way abnormal. And like debt, it’s difficult to escape without careful planning and structure.
The key, first and foremost, is mindfulness. Be aware of how you’re living and how you can change it.
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Thought leaders & celebrities share their tactics for success on the Lisnic podcast by Lisa Teh & Nick Bell