Creating the Habit of Not Being Busy

One of the most common problems among people I work with and coach is the feeling of always being busy.

And then it becomes a rationalization: I can’t honor my commitments because I’m too busy! I can’t be with my family or friends because I’m too busy. I can’t work out, meditate, shut down at night to get to sleep, or make time for solitude and disconnection … because I’m too busy.

Most of us have used this “too busy” rationalization, because it feels very true. It feels absolutely true that we’re too busy. And there’s a corollary to this: if we want to be less busy, we have to get all our work done first (and be more busy in the meantime).

Is it true? Or can we develop a habit of not being busy, even with the same workload?

Let’s get at the heart of this always-busy habit, and then reverse it.

The Always-Busy Habit

It’s a little complicated, because there are a number of components to the always-busy habit:

  1. The tendency to say yes, take on too much, and overcommit. I’m guilty of this, as are most of us. I’ve been working to change it, because it hurts my mission and the people around me. We do this usually because we’re overly optimistic about how much we can actually do. Sometimes it’s because we just have a hard time saying no — we’re worried what will happen if we don’t say yes. It hurts us/ Commit to less, but be more committed.
  2. The tendency to move around quickly, always staying busy. Even if we have a manageable amount of things to do, and haven’t overcommitted like a mad person … we are likely to keep moving all day, always keeping yourself busy. This is just a mental habit — it’s rushing to get done and move on to the next thing, wanting the current thing to be over.
  3. A lack of connection between the task and anything meaningful. Most of the time, we’re doing tasks just to get them done. Because there’s a deadline, because others are waiting on it, or simply because it’s on our task list and we want to get through everything. But that doesn’t feel very meaningful, and it leaves us feeling like we’re on a hamster wheel of work, spinning the wheel without getting anywhere. Instead, we can connect each task with something meaningful, and give it a measure of devotion that it deserves. This is a completely different way of working than our usual rush to check things off.
  4. We’re afraid you won’t pay the bills or keep your job or make others happy if you don’t get everything done. There’s some kind of fear that’s driving us to be busy. We might be worried about finances, or about losing the respect of others. And while these are understandable things to worry about, they are hurting our ability to focus. And they are driving us to do too much. It would be better, instead, if we focused on things that have a higher impact, so we could still get things done but without being so crazy busy. And to let go of the narrative in our heads that’s causing the ear
  5. The tendency to put off the scary tasks. We keep ourselves busy so that we don’t have to focus on the scary, high-impact tasks. They are hard! So we do busywork, and stay in the habit of always rushing, so we don’t have to feel the fear of doing hard, scary tasks. Of course, it would be better if we just focused on the scary tasks if they’re really that important.

OK, with all that going on, are we going to be intimidated and give up, or can we find a new way? I say we find a new way!

A More Focused, Meaningful Way to Work

Let’s imagine a fantasy scenario where you’re getting things done, but with a measure of focus and calm, not rushing but being fully present. With a sense of purpose and meaning. Getting the important things done even if they’re scary.

That’s what we’re looking for, with the idea that we’re not always going to hit this ideal. So how do we get there?

It’s a number of antidotes to our usual tendencies, but the idea is to not let ourselves engage in our usual tendencies. We have to intentionally shift them.

So here are the antidotes:

  1. Prioritize high-impact tasks. Instead of rushing around doing small tasks and responding and doing busywork … can we focus on the tasks that actually matter? They tend to be the scarier tasks that we’re avoiding. They also tend to have a bigger impact on the bottom line, on the projects that matter, on our career and business and purpose. So the habit is to find those high-impact tasks and put ourselves into those most of the time. Like 80% of the time, if possible. We still have to make room for administrative work and messages/emails, but as much as possible, we should be letting go of or saying no to the tasks we don’t really need to do, delegating those that others can do, and deferring the tasks that don’t need to be done today. Instead, we can focus on the high-impact tasks.
  2. Connect to meaning. As you choose each task, let yourself remember why it matters. What is meaningful about it? Who is it serving? Why do you care about it? For me, it’s about remembering that I care about the people who will benefit from this, and that they are more important than my small self-concern and discomfort. So connect to this as you choose the task, and as you start it. See how long you can stay connected to this as you do the task, and keep coming back to it when you forget it. For me, it’s like switching on my heart whenever I come back to it.
  3. Focus on one small task at a time. We can only really do one task at a time. And yet, our minds are on the many that we’re not doing right now. Giving something full focus means that you let go of all the others you have to do, for the moment, and just become fully here with this one task. Notice that I said one “small task” at a time — if a task feels daunting, scary, overwhelming, it is worth turning it into a smaller task. For example, just the first page of a report, or the first few paragraphs. Just the first 5 minutes of something. Yes, you can get to the next 5 minutes after that, but making it a small next step means you can fully focus on what you’re actually doing instead of a 4-hour task that can’t be done right now.
  4. Let go of the narrative so you can focus. If you are feeling fear, shame, overwhelm, anxiety, worry … this is completely natural. Let yourself feel it fully for a moment. But then see if you can let go of the narrative that’s causing the fear. What narrative are you playing in your head that’s making you afraid? “I can’t get this done in time to meet the deadline I set for myself” or “They’re all going to think it’s terrible” or “If I don’t do everything on my task list, they’ll lose respect for me.” These are not necessarily false narratives, but they’re hurting you no matter how true they are. These narratives keep us from being present, pulling us instead to thinking about other things. These narratives add fear and worry to our experience, which makes it harder to focus. So think of the narrative as a soap bubble that you can just pop. Pop! And it’s gone. Now be present and focus on the small task in front of you, without spinning that narrative around in your head. It’s a place of peace, a place of focus.
  5. Focus with full presence, gratitude & meaning. Now you’re here in a place without your narrative, in a place with meaning, with full presence and focus on a single small task that matters. Can you feel gratitude in this focus? Can you be fully present with the task? Can you feel the meaning? This takes a ton of practice, of course. But it’s worth it.

Let’s talk about practicing this, because without practice, this is just a bunch of words.

Putting It Together with Practice

The key word for me is “remembering.” We can practice this different mode of work, of being … but if we don’t remember, we can’t practice.

So how do we remember?

It gets easier with practice, of course. But in the beginning, we have to give ourselves a nudge, as often as we can.

It helps to have digital reminders, but in my experience, physical reminders work the best. For example, you might have several physical reminders such as:

  • A note with just a few words written on it
  • A notebook where you write your most important tasks for the day
  • A note on the lock screen of your phone
  • A little statue placed where you’ll see it
  • A flower on your desk or coffee table
  • Other people in your home or office who can remind you
  • A mindfulness reminder on your computer

Whenever you see these reminders, there is a temptation to start to ignore them. So go against that temptation, and take up the invitation to practice with meaning, focus, gratitude, peace, full presence.

Practice it over and over, until it becomes you default. Until it changes the way you live.

Creating the Habit of Not Being Busy was first published on Zen Habits