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Overworked, Overbooked and Overwhelmed: How Banishing “Busyness” in Your Everyday Life

Posted by Cristina Filippo on 01/13/2015

Ask almost anyone today how they are doing and you will certainly hear “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” These responses seem to have replaced the stock answer of “fine” from days gone by. It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint and the person originally asking the question responds with a kind of congratulations: “That’s a good problem to have” or “Better than the alternative.” So, for all of us caught in this “busy” trap - that’s just American life in the 21st Century, right?

Wrong. This culture of busy is killing us.

Last week I was in New York City working with a new client and while on the subway I noticed something interesting. The people complaining about "busy" were not the working class...it was not the unskilled hourly laborers. The hourly working class when asked how they were was “tired, exhausted, glad to be going home”. It was very telling that the people who were just "so busy” when asked were the individuals dressed in suits and ties…more of the professional business types. Could it be that those of us that are a part of that second group, due to whatever self-imposed achievement oriented concept we have, are creating this "busyness" in our lives? I ask this not as a judgment towards you, dear reader, but more as a question for myself. It seems to me, that busy really has become a cultural badge of honor.

Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist and author of “CrazyBusy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap” writes that a desire for control has led to people actually losing control.

“You can feel like a tin can surrounded by a circle of a hundred powerful magnets” he writes, “Many people are excessively busy because they allow themselves to respond to every magnet: tracking too much data, processing too much information, answering to too many people, taking on too many tasks – all with the sense that this is the way they must live in order to keep up and stay in control. But it’s the magnets that have the control.”

Times have definitely changed. There was a point at the turn of the last century where the elite were idle, and they showed their status by how idle they were. Now we don’t have a “leisure class” – even our kids are scheduled down to the hour and come home exhausted. I’m a Gen Xer and remember as a kid growing up in the 70’s having hours of unstructured time. I chose to build forts with my siblings, read a book, ride bikes with friends and daydream. But that was then…in the 1980’s, during the formative years of building my work ethic in high school - overall work hours began to tick up. There were economic underpinnings to that development – economic insecurity and fear...busyness became a way to validate ourselves and the work we were doing.

Realistically, much of what I am writing about is inherent in the American culture. People in the U.S. tend to spend a lot of hours in the office, yet when you measure national productivity per hours worked, the U.S. actually falls behind such countries as France, Ireland, Luxomberg, the Netherlands and Norway. Those countries have more paid vacation, flexible work policies, paid family leave – they’re places where people tend to work short, intense, but flexible hours. In the U.S. there is a cultural sense that we have to work long hours performing multiple tasks at once which results in many of us feeling overwhelmed. Research performed with people utilizing brain scans found that in individuals who perceived constant stress, gray matter volume was 20 percent less than those individuals who were not stressed. Additionally, having to switch between multiple roles such as work, home and community obligations limits our ability to be as productive as possible. Our brains simply cannot pay attention to two things at the same time with equal weight - so instead of doing one thing well, we do several things poorly.

What all of the research points to is that idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence; it is as indispensable to the brain as Vitamin D is to the body. Deprived of it, we will suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it as a whole, for making unexpected connections and insights. As a leader, people need for us to perform at a higher level, look at the big picture and not be so susceptible to acting "busy" all the time. My proposal is that we change our relationship with busy. We all need to tweak our story, language, mindset, expectations and worldview. These are some possible first steps:

1. Our Story. Identify why you are continually telling the story of “busy” and decide what story you would like to be telling instead. If you are telling this story because it makes you feel important, that is great information! Where are you feeling unseen? If hear yourself being a victim to busy – where do you need to prioritize or set more boundaries? Begin to rewrite your story in a way that feels more authentic to who you are. People will take notice.

2. Our Language. For the love of all that is good, please stop saying you’re busy. Seriously. When was the last time you felt inspired by someone saying they were busy? It serves no purpose – it doesn’t make you more important or valuable or increase your bandwidth and it is actually de-energizing for you and those around you. If appropriate, dig a little deeper when people ask how you are. Who knows? It could start a very powerful conversation.

3. Our Mindset. Sometimes just opening your email or looking at your schedule for the day can be overwhelming. It’s interesting how when an unexpected event happens in our lives how we can clear our schedule so quickly. Are there things on your calendar that are self-imposed and could be dropped? Now look at your schedule and find a way to reframe your work in a way that aligns with your values. A couple of my values are connection and making a difference so I might look at meetings I might have as an opportunity to connect with others and make a positive difference. Try it and see what happens.

4. Our Expectations. My parents have always told me that I "put ten pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack." So true – my to do list is never attainable in the time frame I set. In my mind I argue that I’m just very optimistic or that high achieving people set high goals and usually meet them. While there may be some truth in that, the reality is that all of us need more support, need to say no, and need to delegate. We need not set our expectations so high that at the end of the day when we have only been able to cross a couple of things off the list that we not feel guilty. What about that phone call you had that encouraged a co-worker? How about that extra time you spent perfecting a presentation that resulted in a new account? Those are all a valuable use of your time and good leaders are able to adapt to what is needed in the moment.

5. Our Worldview. Actively support big change – in workplace culture, in cultural attitudes, in laws and policies. Redesign work, re-imagine traditional gender roles, encourage flexible work schedules or work-from-home options when appropriate. Encourage others to chunk their time, especially during whatever their individual peak work hours are. Have them work in short, intense pulses of no more than 90 minutes, and take breaks to get a new perspective and increase energy. Try to recapture the value of leisure and play within your work environment. A little fun and flexibility goes a long way towards a more pleasant, productive workplace.

In short, don’t let the vast churning noise of the busyness of your life make others shout to get through to you. As a leader, you are a valuable asset that others need to be able to have access to. My biggest motivation to abide by my own advice in 2015 is the fear that colleagues, clients, friends, and family may give up trying to shout over my own din of "busyness". At this moment in time, let's all set our intentions for 2015 of how we want to banish busy in our own way.

We would love to know how we might support you in the New Year...contact us anytime and have a great week!

Take this quiz to see if you are overworked and overwhelmed

 In honor of Ohio State winning the NCAA National Championship, here is a great article on Coach Urban Meyer and his solution to banish busyness!


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