Stop Being Busy

I’ve noticed lately that everyone around me seems impossibly busy. At my work, people complain to me that there just aren’t enough hours in the day to get everything done. No matter how hard they try, they can’t make it to all their meetings on time and get everything done that needs to be done.

I’m calling bullshit on this. Being busy is a choice.

There seems to be this misguided concept that in order to be successful, you have to be in a constant state of busy. You can never catch up, never hit reset, never come home and say I got everything done today that I needed to do. Why do we think this way?

Well, I think it goes back to our old American way of thinking. If you work hard, you’ll be successful. Unfortunately, no one is walking around preaching to people that they should also work smart.
While in college, I worked as an intern for a man who owned his own business. He taught me how to run his business so that I could be in charge of things while he was out of town. It wasn’t rocket science, and I picked things up very quickly. After I had worked for him for about a month, he sat me down and said that he was going to give me a raise. Apparently, I did everything twice as fast as his previous employees. What took them five or six hours only took me two or three.

He didn’t have to give me a raise. He could have just let my efficiency be my own downfall. Because I worked faster, I would have made less money than I could have if I had forced myself to slow down, waste time. But I’m not like that. I don’t think I could ever waste time just to get paid more. My own time is way too valuable for that.

I am no longer an hourly employee, but there is still this expectation in my current job that we work 40-50 hours a week. Now, I have absolutely no problem working 50, 60, 70 hours a week if there is work to be done. I’m not a lazy person, trying to get out of doing my work, but I fundamentally disagree with the concept of the 40-hour work week.

Who got to decide that we had to work 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week?

Now, of course it depends on the job that you have. Some jobs are very flexible, some are very structured. If you work at a bookstore and it’s open from 9-5, you’re going to be there from 9-5 whether it’s a busy day or a slow day. If you’re a stay-at-home parent, you work 24 hours a day, even on sick days and holidays. If you’re a freelance artist, you can work whenever you want but you have to sell your work in order to get paid.

But regardless of the structure or lack thereof at your current job, I think we can all agree that this assumption that successful people are busy people needs to go out the window.

How about this: happy people are successful people.

I don’t know about you, but being busy does not make me happy. If I can’t get everything done and I have to go home at night knowing that I’ll be behind the next day, I get stressed out. If I have to miss an important meeting so I can get something done, I feel guilty for missing the meeting and stressed that I’m so busy I had to miss it.

If I get everything done by 4:00pm and I’m ready for everything that’s going to happen tomorrow, I would love to just call it a day. Head out of the office early, maybe go home and read a book or tidy up the house or go to the gym or take a nap. But I get worried that people are going to think I’m skipping out early or I’m not really doing all my work. And I also get worried about the other people that I work with who can’t call it a day and leave early. I want to help them get everything done so they can leave at 4:00 too.

So, how about we collectively decide not to live in a constant state of busy?

Here are a few ways to start:

  • Have realistic expectations for yourself. There really are only so many hours in the day. If your to-do list is three pages long everyday, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Figure out what you can realistically get done every day and stick to that.
  • If you’ve got too much on your plate, delegate. If you have to do everything on your 3-page to-do list, figure out what things you can assign to other people. Especially if you are a manager. Your employees should be taking things off your plate. You should be delegating to them and training them to take over certain things so that you can focus on the things only you can do. 
  • Create a game plan. Daily. As soon as you get to work and get your coffee, write down all the things you have to get done and decide what order you want to tackle them. I recommend doing the most difficult things first, but that doesn’t work for everyone. Figure out what works best for you.
  • Only attend productive meetings. If you have a weekly meeting where absolutely nothing gets done, say something about it. And if you are hosting a meeting, make sure it has a clear agenda, is productive, and worth your time (and everyone else’s).
  • Clear out your inbox every day. I start with my oldest emails first and go from there. By the end of the day, my entire inbox (except occasionally, one or two important emails) is clear. I move emails into folders if I need to save them and reference them later, but I don’t move or delete an email until any necessary action on my end has been completed.

Once you have freed yourself from the plague of being constantly busy, don’t fill that time with more busy clutter.

Your time is valuable. It should not be filled to the brim with to-do lists and plans and structure. Give yourself some wiggle-room to enjoy not being busy, to breathe, to de-stress, to do whatever it is you’ve been needing to do for yourself but you’ve been too busy to do it.

Busy does not equal successful.

Happy equals successful.

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