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How To Be Less Busy

Some successful people do nothing before breakfast.
Bim via Getty Images

Being busy all the time has become a badge of honour -- albeit a heavy, awkward, uncomfortable badge that doesn't go with any of your outfits. According to a study done by The Everest College, workplace stress is on the rise, with eight out of 10 employees feeling frazzled. In a busy world, getting caught up in our ever-growing to-do list is not only seen as okay but rewarded. The Economist highlighted the ludicrous rise of articles that highlight how many things successful people do before breakfast. When did the race to breakfast get so competitive? All this busyness affects our physical and mental health, and stops us focusing on the goals that matter.

The hidden race

Dr Brené Brown's research explores this phenomenon, and she claims that in our collective mindset, exhaustion has become a status symbol. We're participating in an unspoken race where the most exhausted wins.

This hidden race to tiredness is coming at a physical cost that we often can't see. Tony Scwartz published an article in Harvard Business Review stating that "over 80 percent of the top 400 leaders reported they spend the majority of their days feeling negative emotions, fueled in large part by overload and overwhelm".


As we run from one project to the next, juggling ever-faster speeding balls, the first three things to drop off our list are sleep, nutrition and exercise. We lose sleep worrying about the sheer amount of stuff we have to get done, we grab food where we can (which is never the best for us) and eat it on the run -- fast and nasty is usually the choice -- and the most exercise we get is running to catch the elevator to our next meeting. Our focus on these health behaviours goes to the bottom of our pile right at the time when more energy, not less, is required.

The armour of busyness

Busy can also be armour we wear to protect us from facing the thing that really matters, providing a legitimate reason to put off or avoid the conversations we need to have with others. Checking our phones the moment we step out of a meeting stops us from connecting with the person walking out next to us. Rushing to our next meeting gets in the way of us having that boundary setting conversation we know we need to have.

So how do you give up this badge of busyness?

1. Stop before you start

When we take on new work projects, we take on more stuff, and doing so can sometimes feel like trying to squeeze more air out of an accordion that is already deflated. Rather than take on more, you first need to stop something else to create time and space for the new tasks.

Consider whether you could do one or more of the following, for example:

  • Stop staying back late/arriving early to work
  • Stop going to every meeting
  • Stop taking work home
  • Stop taking work calls after 7 pm
  • Stop sending emails after hours

These are not prescriptive, although ask yourself what you would gain and what you would lose from stopping either these or activities like these in your life, even for a short while.

How great is not working?
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How great is not working?

2. Set clear boundaries

If you don't set boundaries for what you're prepared to do, others will set them for you. Setting boundaries allows you to fully commit to your goals, and makes sure you don't sacrifice the things that matter to you the most. These boundaries mean you can concentrate on the actions that give you the most traction, or the behaviours that actually lead to progress, because your focus is not divided.

Here are three tools to help you set boundaries:

  1. Drop the 'hint': Be explicit about what's okay and what's really not okay.
  2. Be okay with push-back: Worrying about being liked can quickly get in the way of sticking to your boundaries. Instead, be anchored in yourself and certain of your worth, and aware that push-back from others doesn't mean you are in any way a 'bad' person. It means you're a 'boundaried' person.
  3. Stop apologising: Your language can either allow you to own your boundaries or undermine them, and a strong boundary is definitely undermined by an apology.

Remember -- the badge of busy is not serving anyone, especially not the best of what you can offer. Busy is not going away, finding calm in the chaos requires us to make the time for what matters. It's time to drop the martyr, own what is important to you, and then defend the stuff that matters even among the busyness.


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