The Busy Paradox

Last year was exceedingly busy, for good and for bad reasons. The good was a rush of achievements in many domains of work and life. The bad was a feeling of being overwhelmed, falling behind, missing out and a constant storm of pressures. If you had asked me in the dying days of late December the latter was in the forefront of my thinking.

When I sit back and reflect with care, the positives outweighed the negatives by some measure. However the nature of busy is that there is an urgency and an immediacy of the negatives. We feel overwhelmed by what is to be done. As a wise boss of my once said:

When you stare at the pile of sand ahead, it’s easy to forget how much we have already shifted

The Busy Paradox

With this challenge in mind, I started 2020 with a focus on being aware and deliberate about my busyness in both work and life. This deliberate intent includes having some priorities, planning what can be planned and saying no more often. No is the greatest and most underused prioritisation tool. I aim to let go the anxiety of busyness with deliberate practice.

After a week of new practice 2020, time mostly on vacation, a paradox of busy is clearer to me. Doing nothing has been amazingly productive. This paradox has two corollaries:

    You do a lot while doing nothing
    There’s a lot of nothing in doing a lot

Less is More

The best defence against busyness is focus. Know what little you are doing and you will achieve more. Lack of focus destroys productivity, purpose and ultimately energy to achieve what you want.

When you are focused you are surprised by how little time tasks take. Focusing on only one thing is the best way to get it done. Work in progress, switching time, interruptions and other distractions are the enemy. Focus is key.

1 Awareness is a Problem

As part of my preparation for the year ahead, I started making notes on the meaningful things that I did each day. These simple bullet points highlighted to me how much meaningful achievement there was in each day of ‘doing nothing’ on vacation.

While I was telling myself I was doing nothing, I was blithely unaware of all the work I was doing. Much of the pressure of our busy lives come from this work. These every day achievements are unrelenting. These pressures are often greater for women who may be experiencing uneven workloads in the often unrecognised managing life of family or relatives.

To manage through our busyness and take care of ourselves we need to be realists and be conscious of exactly how much work there is. We can’t ignore important work just because our attention or the attention of others is focused elsewhere. If we want to look after ourselves, we need to take breaks and give ourselves the latitude to do nothing properly.

Importantly, take care to check the validity of the stories you are telling yourself. If you don’t you can end up frustrated by a flawed vision of reality.

2 There are Lulls in any Storm

If we don’t accept there are lulls in the storm of our always busy lives, we miss the opportunity to recover, relax and do more. Our unwillingness to accept down time, leads to all kinds of unhelpful behaviours:

  • Forcing the pace of activity
  • Over committing to fill the lulls with more work
  • Over-complicating work with makework
  • Confusing duration with effort
  • Digital distractions to fill time (email and social media is a major culprit here)
  • Multi-tasking, especially the unproductive versions with partial attention to multiple concurrent tasks or excessive switching.

If there is a lull in our work or life, we need to make considered choices as to how to use that time:

  • Is it time for a break? Me time is OK. So is Us time to be shared with others.
  • Is there something small and defined that I could do while I wait? Many tasks are much quicker than we think (or at least the next step in the task can be completed quickly)
  • Do I need to think about how to do this better or differently?
  • Who can help us?

The approaches, effort and achievement are what matter in life, not the time taken. Don’t feel obliged to fill lulls just to be busy. Nobody values busyness and time served. Everybody values effectiveness

A final word

As your 2020 develops, I wish you much less so that you can achieve more

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