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Overwhelmed? Exhausted? Busy? It’s time to try a different approach



In today’s world of too much we shout about how busy we are to anyone who will listen. We do this because we think busy is the path to success, despite the personal costs. But the truth is that we’re not busy because there’s too much to do; but because we want to be seen as important and valuable. ‘Busy’ is a brand, not a fact of life.


In his book Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much, Tony Crabbe demonstrates that rampant productivity and personal organisation are the very things that are strangling our ability to think, to create and to differentiate ourselves – all the things that really matter for successful careers in an information economy. If you want to get started right away, here are four simple things you can do today to reject the busy brand and take control of your work and life:

A New Approach to Busyness

As the communication, demands and expectations continue to rise, all of the things we are doing – managing our time, being productive, having so many friends – are failing to work, leaving us exhausted and unsatisfied. The only way we will feel good again and succeed is to radically adjust our response to the information tsunami. Some of these strategies may seem counter-intuitive, because they fly in the face of common practice, but if we want to thrive, we need to find another approach.

1. Stop managing your time!

As information, communication and demand have increased year on year, so has our desire for time management solutions. These tips and tricks helped, for a while, but we are now at a point where it is no longer possible to do it all, or to get on top: there is just too much to do.


The fantasy that we carry that we could regain control of our lives if we got more organised, like some super-slick wedding planner, is both false and unhelpful. An incessant focus on time makes us splinter it into ever smaller fragments – it makes us cram and squeeze activity into every second of our wakefulness. And, as we persistently fail to get on top of things, we give up any belief that we can effect change and shift our attention to coping (candle-lit baths, pizza and TV…) instead of thriving.


Since we can’t do it all, the starting point is to make more choices: to deliberately choose to do some things, and, importantly, deliberately choose not to do others. At the simplest level, this starts with choosing to control when and where you are available; switching off your email notifier and your phone to allow yourself to think. It means understanding that you make your best and bravest decisions first thing in the morning, and after snack breaks (because of ego depletion) and using these opportunities to make the clear choices about the best use of your time that day (rather than being dictated to by what has arrived in your inbox overnight). It means learning how to move from a sense that you’re drowning to one of deep immersion in what you’re doing by learning how to get in the zone.


To regain mastery, you need to let go of the idea that you can control all the demands and information hitting you (inputs), and instead focus on the outputs you choose to deliver – and feeling good about it. Rather than thinking of yourself as super-organised wedding planners, we should think of yourself as a surfer: a surfer doesn’t catch all the waves; she chooses the ones she wants to ride, and lets the others roll past her.


2. Stop being so productive!

In the Industrial Age, competitive advantage came through who could produce the most. The biggest management challenge used to be how to get people to work hard. Now that problem is solved; everyone works hard. In our world of too much it’s not quantity that matters anymore, yet we persist in playing the ‘more game’, assuming that if we produce more than others, work longer than others, we will succeed. We won’t.


In a constant focus on productivity, on real-time responsiveness, on meeting everyone’s expectations, we tend towards doing the wrong things, the small things. We keep everyone happy in the short term, and slowly fade into the background. To succeed today you have to grab attention, not through any superficial posturing or promotion, but through making a genuine impact and differentiating yourself. To do this you have to do less rather than more.


To make an impact you have to create the space to think again, to stand back from the froth and identify what you can do that will make the biggest difference. You have to strategically focus your attention, which means making deliberate tradeoffs. You have to cultivate your creativity, relentlessly pushing for alternatives. You have to place bets, and experiment; learning from the failures and driving home your successes.


You also need to stop building your brand around busyness. Stop responding with ‘I’m busy’ to every enquiry. Instead, understand the core contribution you make, and act consistently with that over time to building a coherent and differentiating brand.


Demonstrate how you add real value through your capability, not through your drudgery.


3. Stop justifying busy

We tell ourselves that we are busy because we are trying to achieve things for our loved ones, or for ourselves. If we have to disappear into our email, or come home late, exhausted and irritable, they’ll understand; after all, we’re doing it for them.


By using busyness to (wrongly) try to be successful we start to disconnect from some of the values, the relationships and the activities that matter most to us. As we disconnect, an uncomfortable hollowness starts to grow inside of us. Rather than face the persistent sense we’re failing to live the life we wanted, or being the parent we aspire to be, we seek to block out the uncomfortable feelings with more frenetic activity. We get addicted to busyness, which makes us feel even emptier, and drives ever-increasing disconnection.


This is crazy: by pretty much every measure, focusing on achieving external success such as wealth and status makes us less happy and less healthy and the very things that we sacrifice to achieve these hollow goals are the things most strongly associated with happiness and health (e.g. relationships).


A simple thing to watch out for is your language. ‘Have to’ is a weapon we wield to justify our busyness. Catch yourself saying ‘have to’ to justify opening your laptop (again) instead of a having a meaningful conversation. Compare the things in your ‘have to’ list with those in your ‘should’ list and you’ll find more value, more meaning, in the ‘shoulds’. Try not to say ‘wait a minute’ to requests for attention from your children, as you fly past them in your busyness. In those three words, you are screaming you priorities to them.


4. Stop having so many friends!

Social media is wonderful and helps us maintain distant relationships that would otherwise wither, but there is also a downside: it can become yet another demand to manage, especially when we try and gain ever more friends and followers.


In actual fact, aiming to be popular is bad for you, from a health and happiness perspective. In simple terms, the greatest psychological benefit from relationships doesn’t come from the many but the few. Spending time with those that are closest to you, building ever deeper relationships with them is about the single biggest cause of happiness and longevity known to man.


You are busy, and relationships are critical to your well-being; so invest wisely. Identify your fifteen most important relationships, and prioritise your time with them. No matter how busy you are, even if all other friends have to be ‘put on hold’, find time to be with your fifteen.