Most of us in the Western world adhere to the Busy Myth: we believe on some level that more we complain about being “busy” to our friends, the more social cred we get. Apparently, the busier we are, the more work ethic we must have, which in turn evolves into a moral superiority humblebrag competition — who got the least sleep last week? Who pulled the most all-nighters on their passion project? (Apparently it doesn’t matter if the most overworked among us are completely unproductive because they’re so exhausted, or received zero results from all that “hard work,” it’s the hours spent resisting sleep that get the headpats.)
Our world equates “busy” with “important” or “in-demand” or “successful,” and that’s a shame, especially because it directly contradicts with the fact that we find stress and jam-packed schedules so grating.
Whenever we do find some relief or an afternoon to ourselves, we often spend it worrying why we’re not busy
enough or whether we’re forgetting something we were supposed to do. For a culture that so heavily glorifies hustle and late-night #grind Instagrams and sacrificing for our passions, we waste a whole lot of time simply looking the part of being productive instead of, well, getting shit done.
Some of us are chronic procrastinators, some of us are paralyzed with no idea where to start on our goals, and nearly all of us waste a ton of time simply trying to muddle through our own busy-ness — looking for papers we lost in the shuffle, trying to decide what to work on next, attempting to multitask, losing our to-do lists, and taking three times as long to accomplish tasks because we fail to properly take care of our bodies.
Instead of solely making us more efficient, technology has also bogged us down with even more obligations, and America is trapped in what’s been called a “time famine.” It’s a name I’m not too fond of, but it’s exactly what it sounds like, and it breeds feelings of shame and ineffectiveness, because no matter how hard we try, we simply don’t have enough hours in a day.
I’d imagine that most of us just assume excessive stress is how life is supposed to be — that we’re doomed to it, so we both crave and disdain it. I’d have to agree that the world probably won’t be slowing down anytime soon, and that the wheel will keep on turning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take back a bit of control over our own sanity.
There are absolutely ways to restructure your life and banish that frazzled feeling you’re faced with each morning when you wake up. Of course, there’s also the option of dropping out of the rat race to live on some peaceful farm in the middle of nowhere, but most of us have some shit to do here in the real world before we even think about dropping out. The old cliche is true: we all have the same amount of hours in our day.
Time is the great equalizer — none of us can escape its passing, and part of me thinks that the reason we obsess over it so much is that it’s a constant subconscious reminder of our mortality.
Our culture is petrified of aging, and trying to squeeze out every ounce of productivity out of our days and years is something of an attempt to fight that process. The more time we spend bogged down with work or frivolous to-dos that accomplish little, the less time we have leftover for our families and personal lives — you know, our life, that thing most of us are working to support in the first place.
Time is fleeting, and our lives are irreversibly flying by every second. The goal, in my mind, isn’t so much to accomplish more than we already are as it is to accomplish the same amount of things that much faster, so we can find a few extra hours each week to get on with the whole “living our life” part (and gee, maybe actually even getting sleep). We may never fully beat the busy trap, but try a few of these tips to make the most of your precious time.
1. Be deliberate
The problem with the “time famine” isn’t so much that we have no free time in the modern world, but that we have it in smaller, less enjoyable chunks.
Instead of a full day off, we might have a few hours here and there throughout the week, which makes them much harder to utilize. It’s up to us to find ways to break down our to-dos or leisure activities into bite-sized chunks to fit with the time we’re given, instead of assuming we can’t do anything at all since we have no days off.
It’s annoying because it requires some extra thinking, but your other option is to move through life like a zombie with no personal agency and look up one day to realize ten years have passed. And that’s no fun! Look at your goals and try to assign small chunks of your time to tiny tasks that will get you closer to those goals, and look for patterns in your schedule that can be used to get more tasks out of the way.
Keep a list of quick tasks (like making a short phone call, responding to an email, etc) for those days when your chunks of free time are extremely short, like twenty minutes of downtime between meetings. Whenever you find yourself with short bursts of time like this, try to do the same few types of tasks so it becomes habitual.
A huge productivity killer is deciding what to do when you have a free moment — that can take up half your time all on its own! Find ways utilize passive parts of your day, like your commute to and from work, even if “using” it simply means letting it serve as a time to decompress before diving back into life when you arrive.
Be disciplined in your use of time, but don’t be so rigid in this scheduling that you won’t allow yourself a little wiggle room for a spontaneous call from a friend. It’s free time, after all! It’s true that saying yes to distractions and lacking the discipline to make decisions for your future self is a slow dream-killer, but life is all about finding the balance between “distractions” and just plain enjoying life.
If you get a last-minute call with an extra ticket to your dream concert, you’d better not say no just because it’s your designated time to answer emails! That, friends, is how you end up falling deeper into the Busy Myth vortex, never to find your way out.
2. Try delegating
I kind of hate being told this, because it seems like useless advice. I don’t have the money to outsource all my chores and cooking to someone else, and I don’t have some random assistant to make all my phone calls for me. I’d like to say “how could I possibly delegate anything?” but the reality is that most of us don’t realize which things we could pass off to someone else because it’s never even occurred to us. There’s also the trap of assuming we can do things better than others and would be more comfortable working on tasks ourselves then putting them into someone else’s hands — not always so! If this is you (and it’s a lot of us), work on your control-freak tendencies, because there’s a much easier living on the other side!
3. Take the damn vacation
This applies not just to beachside jaunts, but to everyday life. If we fully disengage occasionally, we are much more sharp and productive the rest of the time when we’re back “on.”
Most of us are terrible at fully relaxing and not thinking about to-dos when we have a day off or get home from work work, which defeats the purpose of downtime in the first place. The day feels wasted because we didn’t accomplish anything but we also didn’t fully let go and refresh our minds. It can be really tough to stop thinking about stresses, but start by setting small boundaries with yourself, like vowing not to check your email for a few hours on your day off. Build bigger boundaries from there, and unplug as much as possible!
Of course, this also applies to literal vacation, which, I’m going to play cliche and urge you to take it. If you are fortunate enough to have paid time off, force yourself to use it — at least some of it. I know that many workplaces foster a martyr culture that discourages employees from taking the time off that they’ve earned, and that can be tough to resist, because it doesn’t matter how much you’ve earned that trip if your boss still sees taking time off as selfish — especially in this job market. But if this is the case, you work for an asshole, albeit the asshole that unfortunately cuts your checks and thus pays your bills.
All I can say is that studies have found that people are more productive when they take time off, and that taking a few days to lay on the couch or on a beach doesn’t mean you don’t care about your job. If you’re worrying about it in the first place, you’re probably a pretty decent employee.
4. Let go of your quest for perfection
Guess what? This is IT! Your life is happening right now, not just during your time off or the day you finally “perfect” your own sense of productivity. Things will never be perfect, and even on the days you feel like a colossal failed mess, time is passing by. Enjoy the good parts as best you can, even when you feel like a disorganized mess (spoiler alert: everyone does sometimes).
This forces you to go way out of your way to check Facebook or Twitter, which is annoying and defeats the purpose of checking it for a quick time-killer. You’ll be amazed at how much time you just might get back!
6. Remember that your work never ends
I don’t mean that in a bleak way. I don’t remember where I first read this, but someone wiser than I once pointed out that we will never finish our work. As soon as we do, a whole new set of tasks will pop up. All this means is you don’t need to feel so guilty for deciding on a cutoff time to be done for the day, or going to bed before finishing a few emails you meant to get to.
Trust, the whole thing will start all over again tomorrow. This also works in the opposite way – when you give yourself all day to accomplish something, it will probably take all day. When you give yourself a rigid two hours to accomplish something, with obligations on either side, it will probably just take you two hours. This is a great way to shed a perfectionism habit!
My senior year of college was one of the busiest years I ever had – to which I say LOL, because I was told that senior year of college was supposed to be a super easy nostalgia fest. Instead, it was a never-ending stream of chaos, but it was somehow still a pretty great time amid all the pressure. I felt like my degree alone wouldn’t get me where I needed to be after graduation, and I had bills to pay — so I was juggling school, work, social obligations, multiple internships and side gigs, and that whole “planning for a future” thing.
The hours of my schedule varied from day-to-day, making routines especially hard to establish. I felt like I was playing grown-up full-time without the personal agency that comes along with adult life, and squeezing in school wherever I had a free second. I was more broke than ever, struggling to make rent, and while I had some rough ideas of how I’d support myself in such an expensive city after school, I didn’t have specifics to count on just yet.
I learned so much about myself and about getting shit done that year. I went into survival mode, which sounds more dramatic than I intend, but essentially, it became necessary to chuck anything from my to-do list that wasn’t absolutely vital. It made me a nervous wreck, terrified I’d forget something important and accidentally show up empty-handed to a class or meeting.
It wasn’t easy to keep up, but guess what? The things that truly needed to get done always did. There were occasional inconveniences from putting of those low-priority to-dos and some very tough decisions of what to eliminate, but the world did not explode, I didn’t fail at college or work, and the world kept turning. It was my first true lesson in prioritizing.
Focusing only on the most pressing to-dos might not be sustainable for the long haul because you don’t want to spend the next several decades feeling like you’re just putting out fires, but it also calls into questions whether those low-priority to-dos are even worth it in the first place.
Do they enrich our lives or move our goals forward? Some might, but some may be better off delegated so you can make better use of your time. Start each morning with a list of just a few core things you need to accomplish each day — maybe 2 to 5 items. This may sound outlandish, but if you put the focus on your most important priorities first, after some trial and error, all the rest will fall into place.
What made my senior year especially bearable, I think, is that I knew that that chapter of my life was coming to an end, and I was determined to soak it in as much as possible. My time as a college student was fleeting, my future beyond the next few months was unknown, and something about it felt very emotionally meaningful, no matter how unglamorous and stressful it was in the moment.
Partly for this reason, I made a point to focus more on the present moment than the stress I was feeling, and to enjoy even the simplest strokes of good luck throughout my day. I knew I would not get a chance to relive the end of undergrad again, and I felt lucky to have had a college experience at all. I knew I had to make the best of my reality if I wanted to create memories I’d want to revisit later.
The other reason I was so focused on the present was because each morning brought a new set of exhausting obligations that were too draining to think about in advance — I had to think only about what was in front of me, one step at a time, and really, even though life has calmed down a bit now, I’d benefit from still viewing life that way.
In its own way, all of life is as fleeting as that year was — it may not always end in graduation, but all phases of our lives come to an end at some point, and it’s up to us to make something worth looking back on when we’re able.
So, when thinking out your priorities try the “deathbed test.” It’s not as morbid as it sounds! Just consider whether, on your deathbed, you would regret doing or not doing something, and you’ll find yourself with a much clearer picture of what your priorities are. Remember that usually, humans in your life are worth prioritizing.
Besides supporting you, work can give you independence and pride and even help others, and all that can be vital. That said, while I’m not advising giving up your goals for others (don’t!), to-do lists cannot love you back in the way your family and friends can. Keep them in mind now and then, and they’ll bring endless joy into your life to reflect on next time you’re chugging through a busy workday.
Original by: Claire Hannum