When we get busy, we instinctively just do more.
The logic is there is more to do and that means we need to do more.
We probably reason it won’t always be this way, so we exert extra effort in the hope our situation will soon improve and things can get back to normal. Whatever normal is.
The ‘work harder when we get busier’ mantra may work every now and then when there are genuine peaks of busyness in our lives. But constant busyness is a trap. It’s not healthy and if we are honest, it probably doesn’t produce our best work.
And, as I’ve found through bitter experience, it’s not a trap you can crawl out of the same way you get in.
Sometimes the best solutions are the complete opposite of what we may first think.
The moment I begin to feel over-committed, I set aside at least 30 minutes, and even up to an hour, and take my notebook and pen (not usually my phone) and sit in a quiet place, usually a cafe.
I don’t feel bad about doing this.
I know more will be achieved in the next 30 minutes than would ever be done by tackling the next task on my to do list while I am in an overloaded state of mind.
With coffee in hand, I begin to write down all of the things that have logged-jammed in my mind and cause me to feel too busy. All of them — work stuff, family, personal — I don’t leave anything out. As I’ve written previously, I also write out the why of every action.
I don’t mind how many times I’ve written the same to-do list, I write it out again. Owning my current state of busyness is vitally important to actually doing something about it.
I don’t rush the process. In fact — again borrowing from the counter-intuitive — I deliberately slow everything down. I write my list slowly. I drink my coffee slowly. I slow down my breathing.
It might take 20 minutes or more, but once I’ve dumped everything into my lists, I’m ready then to do two very simple things.
First, I am ready to assess the overall magnitude of my situation. Is it actually real? Sometimes I’ve found that it is only one, or maybe two tasks that have caused the feeling of overwhelm.
When that is the case, I break those bigger tasks down into smaller ones. A big task that’s been on my mind might actually require four or five steps to complete. So, I write each of those steps down. I make sure I am clear on why each step is important.
Second, if my situation is still genuinely log-jammed, I look for ways to relieve pressure. I relax self-imposed deadlines first. Just cutting myself some slack, usually relieves more than half my pressure. It does not involve having to negotiate with others, nor do I feel like I’m letting anyone down.
If I’m still feeling uncomfortable about what’s in front of me — and occasionally I do — it gives me a very clear road-map for who I need to speak to, and about what. If I need a deadline extended, I can be much clearer about my need for more time, because I have taken the time to clearly weigh up all of my circumstances and other commitments.
If I was to have a conversation about extending a deadline before taking the time to consider my situation, I’m likely to risk either over or under-reacting and can make matters worse.
After this process, I always feel better. I feel like I’m back in control even though in that half hour or so, I haven’t actually done a single thing on my list.
Stopping like this also has a longer term benefit. It has made me much better at not perpetually over-committing. Unless we learn to better schedule ourselves, and know our limits, we will constantly find ourselves feeling overloaded and in the futile loop of fighting busyness with more busyness.
Recently, someone saw me at a cafe when I was re-prioritising my schedule and said something like “It’s easy for some. I’d love your job.” I smiled as they hurried away, and took their observation as the ultimate compliment.
Just half an hour earlier I had felt too busy to think.