You used to take pride in how busy you were. Lately, though, you realize it’s not working as you hoped. You’re tired. You’re stressed. And, you aren’t actually that effective. What if the best thing you can do for your career—and life—is to press pause, own your first priority, and set up a smarter way of working?
You skipped breakfast. (The extra sleep was worth it.) Some days you grab a rubbery breakfast sandwich from Starbucks. Not today, though. There’s only time for espresso. You scan and respond to email on your bus ride in. You save the ones that require longer responses for when you’re at your desk. Most days you’re through the worst by 10AM. Then it’s one meeting after another.
The email doesn’t stop, though. That inbox is newly filled after each meeting. Lunch is quick—only 20 minutes. You sneak in another coffee, and respond to staff questions before your next meeting. By 5:00, when everyone else goes home, your inbox is pretty much empty—but the items in your task list haven’t budged. So, now that the office is quiet, you’ll do some “real work.”
By 10:00, you’re home. The kids are asleep, as is your spouse. You re-heat the dinner they (kindly) left out for you. You drink a few glasses of wine, to unwind, and watch a shitty movie. It’s been a tough stretch and you deserve some rest. Truth be told, though, you’ve been busy for a long while. Some days, you wish it’d all just blow up, so you could start over.
You can’t lifehack this one
The above scenario isn’t some hypothetical situation. In fact, just a few years ago, it was my life. (That’s a story for another time, though.) Busyness is a popular disease many suffer from. The long hours, the mounting stress, and perpetual state of “pursuit mode” is all too common. Part of what makes it so insidious, is that our culture reveres this state.
You probably reason that all of your struggle is temporary discomfort, and a means to an end. Is it actually, though? Can you honestly say that your situation has markedly improved (by whichever measure you choose) as a result of your busyness? Often, the opposite is the case. Like a car stuck on ice, stepping on the gas pedal makes the wheels spin harder—but takes you nowhere.
If you’re busy in the way I describe, you might just be stuck in a loop. You race from one situation to the next, mostly reacting to whatever is happening. All of this activity makes you feel like you’re doing something—but at the end of the day, you can’t remember what. This leaves you searching for new approaches, tricks, and lifehacks, so you can achieve more. (This often leads you to do a greater number of things that still don’t matter.)
Time is the singular measure of life. It’s one of the few things you can not get more of. Knowing how to spend it well is possibly the most important skill you can have.
In the meanwhile, you’re shortening your life—figuratively and literally. Racing through life means missing out on a lot of experiences. The physical toll on your body robs you of years. All those quick, greasy meals are making you sick. Your lack of exercise puts you at higher risk for heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Stress is driving up your cortisol levels, which in time leads to fatigue and insomnia. Meanwhile, you lack sleep—which will kill you faster than a lack of food. You present yourself as a warrior for pushing so hard. In time, though, you’ll break—just like any other mortal.
Busy people get good at triage: they deal with acute problems quickly, and then move on. Although this might be necessary, it rarely ever fixes bigger systemic problems. You need perspective, so you can introduce systems that help mitigate such emergencies. But if you expend most of your effort dealing with messes, you won’t have time to put better apparatus in place.
This part might sting…
You’ll recognize what I say next as true; nevertheless, it’ll seem wrong. This is because your instruments are giving you the wrong information. (More accurately, you’re looking at the wrong instruments.) Films, television, news, and advertising lionize busyness and busy people. I call bullshit, though. I say you’re not busy because you’re getting things done. I say you’re busy because you’re weak.
You’re weak when you do things the hard way, instead of inventing more efficient methods. You’re weak when you take on a pile of small, inconsequential tasks, instead of biting into the one that really matters. Most of all, you’re weak because you fail to identify purpose (probably due to FOMO), and instead do all kinds of things that distract you from what’s most important.
Frankly, I bet the bulk of what you do when you’re busy is a waste of time. I say this from first hand knowledge. For years, I worked to grow a design studio. During that time, I wrote policies, created manuals, drafted strategies, planned company outings, published books, wrote blog articles, entered award shows, shot-the-shit with staff members, customized our invoices, updated our social media accounts, spoke at conferences, designed stickers to identify specific workstations, and all kinds of other stuff. In retrospect, most of these tasks didn’t matter one little bit.
The two things that did? 1) Selling work so we had steady cash flow. 2) Hiring and supporting the very best talent we could find. I failed to do the first, because selling wasn’t fun. This made the latter difficult. In time, I grew tired of the experience, and retooled it entirely. This turned out for the best, but it doesn’t change my point: being busy with the wrong things is foolish. Now, I live with the awareness that I squandered years of my life choosing to be busy.
Activity addiction is a real thing. Checking off tasks in your to do list feels good. However, if those tasks aren’t getting you anywhere, they’re like empty calories: they fill up your day, without making you any better for it. So, when you pretend to work (e.g., updating your social media feed) you’re really just lying to everyone: your boss, your family, and yourself.
Don’t feel bad about this. You’re certainly not alone. And there’s good reason why you keep doing things that don’t matter: the work that most needs doing is often the hardest, or most intimidating.
Maybe you didn’t even need to do it
If I haven’t lost you yet (that “you’re weak” part probably didn’t help), you’re probably asking yourself how you got so out of control. You’re not a dummy, and you consider yourself open to better methods. So, how the heck did you end up in this mess? Let me suggest a few possibilities.
The first, and most obvious, likelihood is that you attempt to do too many things. This seems easy to fix, but it’s a constant battle. We tend to think that adding more will improve a situation. However, each new thing you agree to do, brings with it a bunch of associated tasks. (For example, committing to a new ad campaign will also involve hiring an agency, meetings to approve creative, proof-reading copy, dealing with invoices, conflict resolution, reviewing reports, and the list goes on.)
You can add to this the fact that others invent jobs for you to do, and the challenge in saying “no” to such requests. That said, these aren’t your biggest problems. Nope. The one that really gets you is your messed up values. Most people don’t take the time to define what they want to achieve, and what they stand for. As a result, they don’t know what work they shouldn’t do.
Take that ad campaign I refer to. If you know what its purpose is, and it achieves said purpose, all of that work is probably worthwhile. This isn’t the way things tend to happen, though. In actuality, such campaigns often have dubious goals like “generating awareness.” It’s hard to measure the effectiveness of efforts with such vague aims. If you don’t know why you’re doing something, you might be better off by just not doing it.
All of this relates to a common narrative that’s bigger than you. It goes back to the Protestant work ethic, which emphasizes that hard work, discipline, and frugality are pivotal to one’s salvation. Most of us dropped the latter two notions, and remixed the first one. Our perverted rework of it is: busy = better. But you and I know there are countless busy people in the world who don’t accomplish anything.
Set your number one priority
I’m still busy a lot of the time, but this isn’t my default state. To me, this is a reasonable trade off: I’m engaged, and sometimes stretched thin, but I don’t feel out-of-control for long periods. You can achieve the same, but you’ll first need to press pause. This means putting down that which you’re working on and taking some time out. This’ll be hard, but it’s key to breaking this cycle you’re in. Sure, you’ll lose a few days or weeks, but important repairs sometimes require you to shut the engine off.
Taking time to think provides an opportunity to recalibrate your values. This is immensely important. A lot of people are busy doing things they hate, to get stuff that they don’t even care about. Here’s an interesting way of looking at this: Would you sell me your life? In this exchange, you get a BMW, a nice house, and $5 million in the bank—but only one year to live. My bet is that you’d turn down this offer. Curiously, though, many trade their healthy years away for the hope of future fortunes (which often don’t materialize).
“Man … sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present. The result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
—The Dalai Lama
I say the single most important part of your life is your health. Without it, money is of little significance and you lose the opportunity to be with those you love. For this reason, I suggest you treat your personal health as your single greatest priority. This means eating unprocessed food, mostly derived from plants. It means planning your work around your daily exercise commitment. It means getting a good night’s sleep and minimizing stress.
For me, healthy living isn’t a matter of flipping a switch. Instead, it seems like a series of small ongoing decisions that lead to better habits. The way I look at it, you can lose a promotion, a raise, or even your job, and still live a good life. Ignore your health, though, and you might lose everything.
Now, we can talk about work
So long as you have your health, life can be pretty interesting. For many people it isn’t, though—because they haven’t determined what they care about. Admittedly, this is a tough question. The smorgasbord of life is abundant. Choosing one or two items from it won’t be easy. You’ll want more, which will prevent you from having anything. Or, you’ll be tempted to make the same choices as those around you. Don’t. Your path is yours alone.
I’ll write about how to identify purposeful work in future blog posts. I’ll also talk to experts on the topic, on our upcoming podcast: Query. For now, though, let me emphasize the immense energy you can tap by being of service. Some will serve people or humanity, others will serve animals or the environment, yet others will serve discovery or culture. I’m not here to say which is right for you. What I can say (with a fair amount of certainty) is that any form of service will offer you more clarity, presence, and fulfillment than acting in self-interest.
There’s more to life than work. There are family, friends, travel, books, sports, dining, and many other wonderful things. The reason I emphasize work is that I believe it affords disproportionate returns. Through it, you can truly contribute to the world around you. It’s also a lens through which you can see and experience the world. If you can identify work you wish to do—and know why you’re doing it—you’ll possess a strength that eludes many.
Now, you must apply this sense of purpose to your actions. Knowing what you want to accomplish should help you determine which tasks are most relevant. This will take time and discipline. You need to stop hiding from discomfort and do the hard work. Which tasks matter most? Find out, and act on those. In doing so, you should see greater progress than you did when you were busy doing everything.
Setting yourself up for less busy-making
No matter how healthy or purposeful you are, tasks quickly pile up. Suddenly, in spite of your pause and realignment, you’ll find yourself fighting the very same challenges you thought you had moved beyond. This isn’t uncommon, nor should it be surprising. Much like making healthier life choices, this is an ongoing pursuit that requires practice.
The single best tactic I know, for maintaining clarity, is to reduce noise. By noise, I mean any non-critical signal that competes for your attention. First, turn off email alerts and smartphone notifications. Then, delete all social media apps from your phone. Want to really get work done? Close your desktop email application for several hours at a time. These changes will be hard at first, and you’ll feel compelled to check what’s happening. Stay strong. In time, you’ll form better habits.
You might also like to create a Don’t List. These are good for bigger challenges, like knowing what projects to say “yes” or “no” to. I even post mine online, as displaying it publicly seems to make it more real. The big lesson with a Don’t List is to figure out which tasks don’t actually matter that much—and reallocate that time to tasks that do.
You might also like to cull your task list from time-to-time, because some things are “nice to dos” and not actually critical. A quick way to identify these is to look at each item and ask how critical it is to helping you fulfill the purpose you set, earlier. If your answer is “not very,” you should nix it. The best way to deal with a great many tasks is to simply not do them.
It’s a bit of a cliché, but there’s some merit to the notion of working smarter, not harder. Take time to identify and implement systems that reduce distractions, and lower the burden on your time. Examine repeat requests, and design ways to eliminate or lessen them. In doing so, you multiply your output, and—more importantly—buy yourself time.
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.
I can’t stress the value of time enough. You need to carve out significant blocks of uninterrupted time, during which you can dedicate yourself to substantial tasks. I use this time mostly for “real work.” By this, I mean planning how Officehours should work, designing workflows, or writing things of significance. This time can also be used to imagine possibilities, recharge, or read. Warren Buffet, for example, dedicates 80% of his day to reading—and he seems to get a fair amount done.
All these choices define your life
In spite of what popular culture might suggest, you aren’t supposed to be a productivity machine. You don’t need to perform superhuman acts, or wow us with your fortitude. No one asked you to, and even if you accomplished such feats, the outcome would pale in comparison to your expectations.
In fact, the notion of productivity is somewhat outmoded. A better question might be: “how do I live a good life?” Admittedly, this is a complex question; however, avoidance won’t make it any easier. So, you might read the how it all ends, and use what you find there to inform your decisions. (For many, the answer seems to be found in relevance, time, communication, friendship, and permission to be happy.)
You are more than your career and the number on your paycheck. You are more than what you wear, and the car you drive. You are more than your aspirations. You are more than the results of your quarterly performance review. You are the activities you do in your off time. You are the bedtime stories you read your kids. You are the friend who can be relied on. You are the partner who cares for your spouse. You are the community member who always does what’s right.
And, yes, work is important. It’s important because it affords you an opportunity to contribute to this ride we’re all on together. Doing so needn’t take your every moment, though—and flailing wildly won’t make you any better at it. Instead, you must identify (worthy) purpose, choose a course of action, and establish good habits. Then repeat.
I suggest that the best use of your day is in doing one thing that matters—not a hundred things that don’t.