If you have a job you have come to the realisation that work isn’t always working for you and / or your colleagues because of the continuous and overwhelming feeling of busyness. How often do you or your colleagues mention how busy or super-busy you are? The feeling of busyness seems everywhere expressed by your colleagues’ hurried email signoffs (“rgds” or “B” – for Brian or abbreviations such as “COP” – close of play or “ASAP”- as soon as possible, which in itself forces immediacy), or from the tense frowns of coffee shop customers whose cappuccinos aren’t coming quickly enough. Things that never previously triggered stress now do so: a buzzing smartphone at 8.45pm starts the anxiety juices flowing, even if it turns out to be a message from a friend.
And yet it’s been obvious for a while now that the busyness epidemic isn’t what it seems. Data reliably shows we have more leisure time than in the past, not less. (Even parents of small children spend more time per day, on average, in leisure activities than primary childcare.) Last year, a survey of thousands of adults in 28 countries found that most of us don’t believe how busy others claim to be, and that we frequently feel pressured to exaggerate our own busyness: we perform being overwhelmed, scared we’ll seem like slackers if we don’t – and soon we’ve convinced ourselves, too. All of which isn’t to say that the epidemic is imaginary – we really do feel too busy, after all – but that the real problem is the feeling, not the sheer number of things on our plates.
But what causes that feeling, then, if it isn’t simply having too much to do? The answer is that the feeling of being overwhelmed arises from a mismatch – between all the things you’d like to do, or feel you ought to do, and the far smaller quantity of things you’re actually capable of doing. And the gap is widening fast.
Our human limitations – our finite energy and need for sleep, the number of hours in a day – remain the same as ever. Yet for reasons both technological and economic, the pressure to do more keeps ratcheting up. Work has extended into our leisure time: a message from the office can reach you in bed at midnight if you let it; and there’s no upper limit to the number of emails you can receive, the number of new initiatives your boss can dream up, or the size to which your company might theoretically grow. Being too busy, in short, isn’t a sign of your inadequacy but a mathematical certainty: finite people, attempting to do an infinite amount, will always feel overstretched by definition. We need to fix this problem in the long run but for now there are ways you can make life saner:
- Accept defeat
There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs, i.e. with resources such as time or money, spending some of it on one thing always entails not spending it on something else. It’s literally impossible to get everything done – time is limited; “everything” isn’t – and that’s great news, because it means you needn’t feel guilty for failing. You can turn, instead, on the far more manageable question of which things to deliberately neglect. The vacuuming? The weekly meeting that nobody cares about anyway? Start from the assumption that something’s got to give, and focus on figuring out what.
- Respect your rhythms
If you want more output from a machine or a computer, you just run it for more hours, and it’s tempting to assume that humans are the same. But in fact, we’re creatures of rhythm: two hours of intense work, when you’re at your most focused and refreshed, can be vastly more worthwhile than six when you’re feeling depleted. If you have the flexibility, organise your day so that the most important matters get your best time, not necessarily the most time.
- Practise strategic incompetence
In office jobs, there’s one fool proof way to avoid being burdened with certain time-consuming but not job-related tasks for which you need to develop a reputation of being rubbish at them. Act baffled around the coffee machine, or a jammed printer, and you’ll soon find nobody asks you to deal with it next time around. There’s a broader (and less passive-aggressive) point here, about managing expectations in general: they’re what we’re judged by – so setting them too high is a recipe for being too busy.
- Build in buffers
You will underestimate how much time a task requires, even when you know that’s what you always do and try to plan accordingly. The best antidote, if possible, is regularly scheduled blocks of hours, designated as buffer zones. When it comes to planning your work or arranging meetings, treat them as if they didn’t exist. Then, when they roll around, use them to finish whatever you’re behind on.
- Practise procrastination
A uniquely tricky cause of busyness is the opposite of procrastination – not leaving them too late, but doing them too early, just to have them done with, even though waiting might have meant less effort overall. That’s how you end up wasting a whole day on trivialities, in search of that satisfying sensation of having cleared the decks – when all the while, more important stuff is mounting up. The secret truth, especially applicable to email, is that neglecting something for a few days often makes it go away entirely: people find alternative solutions to their problems.
- Give your time away
When you’re rushed, it seems sensible to hoard your minutes, safeguarding as many of them as possible. Yet research on the experience of time suggests we’ve got things back-to-front: a better way to gain a sense of “time abundance” is to give some away, for example through volunteering. The explanation for this curious effect, researchers speculate, may be the feelings of self-efficacy engendered by the voluntary work: successfully do something useful, and you’ll be subconsciously reassured of your capabilities, making you more confident about the chances of getting further useful things done in future.
- Watch out for time debts
Time debt is what accrues whenever you do work that feels productive, but that in reality has the effect of generating more work, later on. This is why clearing your inbox is often a false victory: eliminating all those emails means replying to lots of them, thereby generating replies to your replies, and thus more email in the long run. (It’s the same with meetings: arranging a meeting feels like you’re dealing with a problem – but eventually you’ll have to attend the damn meeting.) You can’t eliminate this kind of work entirely. But you can try to balance it with “time assets”, work that reduces the need for further work down the line.
- Slow down, however wrong that feels
The last thing you want to hear, when you’re drowning in to-dos, is that cultivating patience might be part of the solution. But our urgency-addicted culture is at the core of the busyness problem. We’re convinced that with just a bit more speed we could stay in control – and so we grow unwilling to tolerate the discomfort of slowing down. When you’re already on this urgency treadmill, it can feel excruciating to attempt to slow down – but you may end up getting more done if you try. Experiment with doing nothing at all for 10 minutes between tasks: the harder that feels, the more you may need it.
- Try the five-item to-do list
One major problem with your endlessly expanding to-do list is that it fuels the fantasy of one day getting it all finished; adding one more item to the list feels effortless, so it’s dangerously easy to overcommit. Instead of an open-ended list, use one capped at just five items, so you’re forced to complete (or consciously abandon) a task before adding another. The obvious objection to this is the risk that you’ll forget something important if you’re not allowed to write it down. But let’s be honest: you already forget important things anyway.
- Stop boasting about being busy
Moaning about how busy you are is obviously a boast disguised as a complaint: Your life cannot possibly be trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day (”I’m in back to back meetings”). But the truth is that all that boasting probably makes you feel even busier, because we believe the things we tell ourselves, while making others feel rushed, too. And if you really are that how can you find the time moaning about it?