How to Stop Feeling Busy

Have you ever felt too busy or that you’re not actually in control of your day? For many of us working within tech, the current cultural shift toward high productivity and workload fetishism has created some serious work-life balance issues. One way I’ve described it to others is that I sometimes feel like my day takes place on the pool table. Everything starts out great in the morning. And then somewhere around breakfast things fall apart. The rest of the day I’m bumped between tasks based on the requests of others.

Here are just a few of the things I mean:

  • Work colleagues asking for updates or quick favors
  • Family / Friend responsibilities
  • Kids (hard to tell a 4 year old that you can’t help them in the bathroom because you’re relaxing)
  • Doctors appointments, bank trips, grocery shopping…

Most of us live a zero-sum day. If we take time away from task A, task B, C and D have less time and end up feeling rushed or urgent. There’s just no way to insert extra time and get everything in.

So how do we fix this?

One way is to change our mindset. Instead of viewing the time we spend on these ‘external’ activities as time taken from us, we begin to view it as our time. After all, it’s just a matter of perception. Sometimes you want for nothing other than the company of your friends, but can’t for some reason. Now you’re given an opportunity to be with them, but not on the terms that you want. The company is still there… but the context is different.

It may also be a priority thing. You really enjoy hanging out with Marie, but today you’ve got a project to finish that you hold at a higher priority.

Eastern philosophy would encourage you to be mindful and present and detach yourself from the ‘fruits of your labor’.

That sounds a little obtuse, so to explain, here is a passage from Thich Naht Hanh’s amazing work, ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’:

While washing the dishes one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.

At first glance, that might seem a little silly: why put so much stress on a simple thing? But that’s precisely the point. The fact that I am standing there and washing these bowls is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions. There’s no way I can be tossed around mindlessly like a bottle slapped here and there on the waves.

. . . There are two ways to wash the dishes. The first is to wash the dishes in order to have clean dishes and the second is to wash the dishes in order to wash the dishes. . . .

If while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not “washing the dishes to wash the dishes.” What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.

In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, the chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either. While drinking the cup of tea, we will only be thinking of other things, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future – and we are incapable of actually living one minute of life.

For the more ‘hands-on’ amongst us, another way we can address the stressed out, perpetual busy feeling is to plan and prioritize our day. It looks like this:

  • Joe wakes up a reasonable amount of time before work. This enables him to start his day on his own terms, without feeling rushed or without personal time.
  • He makes breakfast and sits down with a pad and paper.
  • He sketches out his top 3 things to do for the day. 1 thing for work, 1 thing for someone else and 1 thing for himself. He’s defined these 3 areas according to his goals.
  • He takes breaks throughout the day to check in with himself and gauge his progress on his 3 things. When something new pops up, he evaluates it against his current list. Is it higher priority? If so, he replaces an item. If not, he says no. (It’s ok to say no!)

While these ideas are simple (and my presentation of them was fairly quick), they can be extremely effective for many of us. Sometimes the smallest changes can make the biggest differences in how we feel.