For years and years, I complained about never having enough time.
"If only there was more time in the day, THEN I could actually [insert something I wanted to do or get done]" was a common grievance uttered by my brain.
Part of this struggle, of always feeling like there wasn't enough time in the day, stemmed from my neurotic sense of perfectionism, which has proved to be a handicap way more often than an asset.
The other part is due to the fact I'm a perennially slow "executor" of just about anything imaginable - completing my engineering homework in college, writing a thank you card, making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Even writing this very blog post, darn it. In fact, my wife tells me the only time she's ever seen me do something quickly is when we've gone sprinting together.
Whatever the reason, I've historically felt way too busy and more overwhelmed than any human has a right to be.
But that was okay, as, on the bright side, I at least blended in with everyone else in the Washington DC area who (often proudly) pins their "busy badge" to their chest on a daily basis.
Then, one fateful day in 2012 I read something by Tim Ferriss that forever changed my outlook on being and feeling busy.
When I first read that, I bristled.
"How DARE he??? He has no idea how many obligations I have to fill in a given day. What a self-righteous, condescending jerk." *slams door*
But the more I thought about it, the more it made perfect sense.
Many people tend to believe that if only they had a few more hours in the day, they would be so much more productive. They'd be in better shape, make more money, read more books, enjoy more time to relax and unwind.
But I don't think this is true at all.
The issue is not a lack of time. The issue is the mindset.
The people who complain about not having enough time in the day are the same people for whom it would actually be a bad thing to have 30 hours rather than 24 - for them, these extra six hours would only equate to six additional hours of frustration and feeling overwhelmed.
If you don't manage 24 hours well, then you certainly aren't going to manage 30 hours well.
Did Steve Jobs have more hours in the day than you do? How about John D. Rockefeller? Or Beethoven? Ben Franklin?
If anything, those individuals had more people and more noise vying for their attentions than most of you reading do.
You see, the fundamental issue to being unproductive or feeling stretched too thin is not a lack of time. The real issue is twofold:
1. A failure to prioritize and act upon the high-impact items that will actually move you forward not one step, but ten steps.
2. An unwillingness to refuse the distractions that we've programmed ourselves to turn to in order to avoid facing the uncomfortable yet necessary tasks. Emails, meetings, Reddit, Facebook, Netlix, are all easy examples of surrogate drugs we inject ourselves with on a daily basis in order to evade what we really should be doing. Even work itself can be a distraction we use; we'll work on something we know isn't as important in order to have an excuse for not doing the thing we know we need to be doing.
If you're reading this, and you know (perhaps too-well) the frustration of feeling overwhelmed, unproductive or both, I'm unfortunately not going to provide a step-by-step algorithm for abating your pain points. If truth be told, I'm still figuring it out myself.
However, I'll offer a some tips that have been helpful for me:
- The next time you catch yourself complaining about being too busy, stop whining about being the victim and face the fact that your predicament is likely a result of poor planning and indiscriminate action.
So, what can you do better next time? What are some high-impact actions you can take? How can you better plan future tasks? What can you stop being so perfectionist and uptight about? Who can you delegate a few things to? (Yes, I know they won't do as good a job as you.....get over your pride and outsource it.)
- Creating and checking off a long to-do list does not mean you're being productive. In fact, most of the world's successful and influential people are those who select only a few action steps, or maybe just one, to complete each day.
- Be honest with yourself about the distractions you turn to in order to avoid the critical, but often boring or uncomfortable items, you actually need to focus on. I don't know what to say other than to stop distracting yourself and stop procrastinating. Just stop. Don't waste your life. There is no amount of motivational writing nor any magical productivity app that can protect you from your own foolish behavior.
- Speaking of productivity apps, they are rarely the answer. If they work for you, then great. But there's a large difference between getting really good at utilizing an app to organize your to-dos and actually getting stuff done.
- One thing I can say for certain about Jobs, Rockefeller, and the other folks mentioned earlier is that they had a purpose. A vision. Everything they chose to do or not do centered around their purpose. If an action would bring them closer to fulfilling their purpose or vision, then they did it. If not, then they didn't.
- Rarely will you immediately taste the fruit of taking a step back on your busyness to think about what your long-term goals are and what action steps you need to take, today, to begin to make that happen. You may be in a job whose very nature necessitates busyness, and it may take you a while to get out of it. Or perhaps you're an entrepreneur, and there's no getting around that you'll need to be "busy" for a little while. But at the end of the day, ask yourself "what am I busy doing?" If it's not something that ultimately helps you move one step closer to your purpose, then get rid of it.
- Do you even know what your purpose is? You can't really do much until that's squared away.
Finally, I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes by Seneca, a Roman philosopher and statesman who lived 4 BC - AD 65.
It's helpful to keep in mind, for self-evident reasons.