Feeling too Busy? Don't Neglect These Four Things

black and white photo of busy people with text reading 'too busy? read this'

According to a 2015 Gallup survey, approximately 61% of working Americans reported feeling like they don’t have enough time to do the things they want. In the years since then, this figure hasn’t seemed to go down. Being busy has become a trademark of our culture, especially as it has grown more popular for folks to work multiple jobs or have a side hustle.

And yet, busyness is oddly paradoxical. On the one hand, most working Americans report that they don’t have enough time to do what they want to do. On the other hand, the same population is notoriously bad about overestimating the amount of time they spend working– usually by around 10%. As a result, our culture has this odd tendency to inflate the amount of time we’re working and minimize the amount of time we’re devoted to leisure. We say we want more free time, but we also want to look like we’re busier than we are and wear our busyness as a badge of honor.  

What do you Lose Out on by Being so Busy?

Like so many other facets of our culture that we passively accept without critical examination, the desire to remain busy (or appear busy) does more harm than good. For example, one characteristic of chronic busyness is the tendency to multitask or celebrate multitasking. Multitasking sucks. It splits our attention between tasks, reducing our overall effectiveness and information retention. Multitasking is a way to look and feel like you’re doing a lot while actually doing very little– it stresses you out and can rewire your brain so that you become accustomed to distraction and a short attention span.

On top of that, busyness is often leveraged as an excuse. As much as it’s a badge of honor to be busy, especially among entrepreneurs and in the corporate sector, busyness also acts as a shield to keep us in our comfort zone. Consider in your own life if there have been times in which you felt like you should do something, but wrote it off due to the length of your to-do list. Friends you haven’t seen in a while invite you to drinks, but Sara is bringing her annoying boyfriend, so you blame your boss and stay home. Your nephew is having a school play and wants you to come watch them in their non-speaking role as Tree #4, but you sidestep the invitation by blaming a project that you’re working on. A part of you feels like you should go to the gym and get in some cardio since you have a family history of heart disease, but you’re so wiped from work that you stay in and order a pizza.

Being busy is a convenient way to ensure that we never step out of our comfort zones. We can work ourselves silly going in circles and sustaining our routines, whether or not they’re fulfilling, because they’re familiar. The problem with this type of comfort is that the more we rely upon busyness as familiar territory, the easier it is to get out of alignment in other areas of our lives. Because busyness is the devil we know, we sacrifice our relationships, health, and core values– often without recognizing their descent into the danger zone.

Using the Wheel of Life to Set Boundaries

If you, like many people, are addicted to being busy because of its familiarity and the prestige associated with it, you’re likely going to struggle if you try to cut out excess business. Ultimately, if you were working with me as a coaching client, what I’d advise you to do is to focus on being productive and satisfied rather than busy. Getting to that point can be an arduous task and isn’t always straightforward. As a starting point, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to identify where you’re currently lacking (such as by completing the Wheel of Life exercise here). From there, set firm boundaries with yourself about the minimum amount of time you will devote to these areas. Start small. If you’re not exercising at all, for example, don’t expect yourself to suddenly be able to devote two hours each day to powerlifting. Try for thirty minutes. Or may one hour every other day.

The idea here is that on a given day, there is only ever going to be 24-hours. If you subtract the time that you’re asleep, grooming, and eating, you’re left with even less time. Then, if you have set boundaries in your schedule in which you’re devoting your attention and energy to something that makes you a more well-rounded person, you’ll recognize that time you’ve seen as “busy” in the past has been there all along. In my experience, you’ll likely also still complete everything you need to complete professionally. Our efficiency at work is often like a liquid and will fill whatever container we make for it.

What Should You Prioritize Aside from Work?

Looking at your wheel of life and thinking critically about what you’re currently lacking is the best way to set your new priorities.

That said, there are a few things that I recommend everyone make priorities and set guard rails around it so that they’re not compromising. Humans are unique, individual creatures, so there are seldom instances in which everybody will overlap. This is one of the few instances.

That shortlist of universally valuable items to keep and protect in your schedule is:

  1. Exercise
  2. Rest
  3. Nutrition
  4. Relationships

Let’s dive in and take a look at each of these a little closer.

The Importance of Exercise

A part of me is uncomfortable discussing exercise on a self-improvement website because of the connotations that come from it. Often, we look at exercise as a means to an end. More specifically, we see the value of exercise as being the outcome of our bodily appearance. Take a glance at fitness and workout-related websites or magazines. Every workout seems to be for a smaller waist, bigger biceps, a broader back, firmer thighs, or a rounder butt. Exercise is presented as a way to change your body.

For a long time, that’s how I felt about it. I wanted to work out because I wanted to look a certain way. And yet, the more I’ve exercised, the more I’ve realized that it does so much more for me than alter my physique.

Exercise is a key element is a brilliant tool for improving your mood, retaining more information and being more receptive to learning new things, decreasing joint pain and stiffness, reducing your risks of heart disease, lowering your blood pressure, aiding your body in hormonal balancing, and so much more. If you’d like a full rundown on its benefits, definitely check out Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD. It’s a brilliant read and has completely reshaped how I feel about exercise. Now, when I’m working with a client, it’s one of the topics I’m keen to ask about– if someone isn’t getting any exercise, chances are they’re feeling out of whack in a multitude of ways.

I should also point out that you don’t have to lift heavy weights or run a marathon for exercise to be beneficial. One of the beautiful things about exercise is that you can start where you are– whether that’s something highly adapted or modified to meet physical limitations, or if you’re already an Olympian– and you’re going to benefit. You don’t have to be thin or muscular; you just have to move.

Try to put at least thirty minutes each day into your schedule in which you get your heart rate up and break a sweat. If you can do more time, do so. On average, I exercise about an hour and a half each day and would get in more gym time if I could! Once you make it a core part of your day, I suspect you’ll go down the route I did and become addicted to it.

Why Rest is Your Secret Weapon

When people feel busy, one of the first things they tend to sacrifice is sleep. That’s a big no-no.

In college, it often becomes second nature for folks. They see that they have an imminent deadline for something massive, so they pull an all-nighter. Too often, we carry this mentality into adulthood. Consider in your own life if there have been times where you’ve gotten in from the office and felt like you needed to relax, so your solution is to crack open a beer and watch television into the wee hours of the morning.

Unfortunately, these behaviors lead to a downward spiral. If you limit your sleep or otherwise force yourself to stay up late and get up early, fatigue and exhaustion will set in quickly. Obviously, there are situations in which we don’t have much say in the matter. If you have young children or pets, for example, nobody can fault you for having to get up during the night to care for them.

Exceptional circumstances aside, ensuring that you get enough sleep each night is another area in which I advise drawing hard lines in your schedule. It’s okay to impose a bedtime on yourself! In fact, I encourage it. Young adults and adults ages 18 to 64 should get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

Failing to get enough sleep can lead to acute or chronic complications. Over time, not getting enough rest can lead to an inability to focus, fatigue, irritability, and an increase in baseline stress levels, which contributes to higher risk of heart disease and stroke. Shorter-term, yet just as dangerous, risks associated with sleep deprivation can be significant as well. Recent estimates identify fatigue as the root cause of as much as 20% of all traffic accidents. As summed up by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “The damage from sleep deficiency can occur in an instant (such as a car crash), or it can harm you over time. For example, ongoing sleep deficiency can raise your risk for some chronic health problems. It also can affect how well you think, react, work, learn, and get along with others.”

If you want to perform at your best– regardless of what is on your to-do list for a given day– sleep is not one of the areas that you can sacrifice. Your relationships with others, productivity, and general demeanor will improve when you are well-rested.

Eat Right to Be Right

Similar to what I’ve said about exercise, nutrition is a topic that’s often burdened with unnecessary emotional baggage.

Too often, when we talk about nutrition or see media around nutrition, it is positioned as being diametrically opposed to obesity. This connotation really gets under my skin. Weight is affected by so much more than what you eat, and it’s not inherently good or bad to be in any specific weight range.

Nutrition is not a construct that’s supposed to make you look a certain way. Nutrition and eating well, as I use the terms, refers to making sure your body gets the nutrients it needs to operate at its best. Regardless of your body type or shape, if you’re constipated, iron-deficient, or lacking in one of several major vitamin and mineral groups, you’re just not going to feel good.

It’s as true for people who are overweight as it is for people who are underweight, and all of our bodies have unique nutritional needs. For example, I have an athletic build. I’m tall and decently muscular, and I’m sitting in the range of 12-16% body fat. In spite of this, nutrition is still every bit as important for me now as it was when I was in the 20-25% body fat range. Regardless of my physical appearance, I still require a significant amount of dietary fiber, B-vitamins, iron, and protein every day to feel normal. Eating right doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my favorite junk foods or snacks that are low in nutrient density; it just means that I’m cognizant of what else I’m eating and make sure I get the nutritional value I need to feel my best. If you don’t feel good, you’re not going to do your best work throughout the other areas of your life.

Other People

Confessedly, this is one that I struggle with and the pandemic has not made it any easier. Still, it’s something that I am adamant about and work to incorporate into my own routine as much as possible.

For many of us, when we start to feel too busy or overwhelmed, our tendency is to isolate. We cut others out of our lives or hold them at arms distance. Often, this is a defense mechanism. Being overwhelmed and stressed activates our fight, flight, or freeze response. Fear enters into the picture whether we recognize it or not, and in an attempt to save face and avoid the possibility of letting others down, we turn inward.

Within entrepreneurial circles, the often-echoed aphorism is that “your network is your net worth,” meaning that your ability to connect with others will dictate your success as an entrepreneur. I’d take it a step further and underscore how important your relationships with others are outside of business as well as within. If you’re not getting along with those in your immediate circle of influence, or if you’re feeling lonely or abandoned, your mental well-being is going to suffer. Humans aren’t meant to go through life alone. Even the most introverted among us (meeeee) need to be social and develop relationships with other folks.

On top of that, the more we expand our circle of influence, the better off we will be. Research consistently shows that those who are part of a community of diverse thought, backgrounds, and experience are the groups that consistently innovate, solve complex problems, and see major wins in terms of quality of life.

Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam is a great read for learning more about the function of communities within our society, and the ways in which they’ve evolved in recent decades. I definitely recommend checking it out if you’d like to learn a bit more about the topic.

Final Notes on Busyness: Do Less to Do More

However you go about restructuring your daily schedule, these are the areas that I recommend safeguarding as best as you can.

If your ultimate goal is to be more productive so that you can accomplish more during your working hours, I’ll leave you with this bit of advice. Focus on doing less. Ultimately you’ll do more.

One of the best things you can do to protect these four key elements of your schedule and feel more accomplished is to limit your number of priorities in any given day. When you see your to-do list as a mile long, you’re going to have analysis paralysis about where to start, and once you get started, you’re more likely to bounce around between tasks. This pretty much guarantees that you’ll be stressed and feel like you’re coming up short.

Give yourself two to three priorities per day. Focus on those tasks and nothing else. Once they’re complete, feel free to see what else you can do, but don’t deviate from your priorities if you want to regain control over your feeling of busyness.


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