What are the best strategies for overcoming busyness, and how does one implement them?
This section will guide you through the practices of understanding and analyzing your schedule, aligning your time in accordance with your values, and practicing time-deepening behaviors that will help you feel in more control of your time, and less time-poor.
In case you’re busy…. here’s the TL;DR:
Awe can stretch our perception of time. “When researchers induced feelings of awe2 in people—by showing them video clips of people next to vast things like whales or waterfalls—it altered their perception of time such that the people felt like they had more time on their hands.”3 Some study participants felt so time-rich that they signed up to volunteer. Watching inspirational Youtube videos, or (better), going for a beautiful walk in nature can be ways to induce awe. Spending as little as 10 minutes outside can also reduce stress.4
Try New Things
Shift your perception of time by doing new things. When we engage in new activities, act spontaneously, and learn new things, these experiences are more memorable to our brains, which makes time feel more abundant.5
Trade TV for Books
Television has become one of the most popular leisure activities in the world, with Americans especially spending about 55% of their leisure time in front of a television.6 Not only is it a time suck, but television watching is linked with lower life satisfaction,7 contributes less to happiness than reading or socializing,8 and can lead to a distorted perception of how leisurely our leisure time really is.9
Switching tasks leaves “attention residue” in our brains, which makes it difficult to switch quickly from one task to another.10 Multi-tasking, or the continual switching of tasks, simply means we apply less effective focus to more tasks more slowly. To complete tasks efficiently and effectively, practice chunking time to work.
Put the Phone Away
A sure-fire way to reduce task-switching is to refrain from checking one’s phone in between activities. Manoush Zamarodi found through her Bored and Brilliant project that only reducing phone time by an average of 6 minutes per day was enough for 70% of study participants to report having enough time to think.11
Give Stuff Away
A cluttered physical space is linked with depression, eating junk food, and difficulty reading emotions.11 And, having many physical belongings takes up time in maintenance. Give away belongings to reduce mental and physical clutter.
Give Time Away
Counterintuitively, giving away time helps time feel more abundant. A series of studies showed that people that lent a helping hand felt that they had more time on their hands than those that did not.12
Declutter Your Schedule
Thinking of busyness as clutter can be a helpful way to reduce, and to focus on the essential aspects of life. Clutter is stressful, and there are ways to reduce clutter within our own schedules and minds.13 Decluttering our schedule can be a way to not only achieve more rest but also to discern important aspects of our identity – like chipping away at a marble block until it becomes a beautiful sculpture.
The Pressure to Be Efficient and “Optimize” One’s Life
While time management can be an effective way to prioritize and organize your schedule effectively, this act itself does not necessarily reduce the pressure to be efficient and optimized at all times.
Understanding how your culture impacts you, and whether you are unknowingly abiding by a socially constructed view of time that encourages busyness are two integral aspects to finding balance with your busyness. If your goal in managing your time is to discover all of the lost time you have in order to cram it with the most efficient use of activity possible, you are likely holding on to some beliefs about busyness and its value, rather than accepting that your life isn’t an object to be optimized for ultimate efficiency.
As written in “Earning the Badge of Honor: The Social Construction of Time and Pace of Life,” by
Ann Burnett et al., “Time management strategies, designed to deal with issues of time scarcity, actually may place increasing pressure on the need for time efficiency.”14 Putting pressure on yourself to use every possible moment of time in the “best way” can create more stress. Though helpful, time management strategies aren’t aimed at creating a new way to think about time altogether. Time management is not the answer to freeing yourself from the belief that you must be busy and that busyness is integral to your survival in this society. However, it is a tool you can take advantage of to utilize your time more effectively and reflect on the activities that bring meaning to your life. This section will provide tools for both: time management and time serenity.15
Oftentimes, becoming less busy can be a big game of prioritization.
What activities can be cut out because they are not priorities? What is most important to me as an individual? What can I focus on to feel the most fulfilled? What are the things I genuinely enjoy and want to have more time for?
What Sort of Busyness Are You Experiencing?
Self Assessment: What sort(s) of busyness are you experiencing, that you are hoping to reduce?
- the objective, measurable level of activity (taking into account activity density as well as total hours of activity)
- the subjective experience of time scarcity, (as informed by personal needs for rest, personal perception of time, and cultural comparisons.)
These types of busyness can require different approaches to address, and, if much of your busyness is out of your own control, attending to your experience of time scarcity and stress levels can be a way to feel less busy, and in more control of your own life. You always have control of your inner world. The second half of this section will focus on cultivating inner health around your perception of time and its hold on your life. What are your stories surrounding time?
Reducing Activity Levels – Finding Time
“Everything we do is located in time.” -Jonathan Gershuny
How do you actually spend your time? Could there be a reason that life feels so frantic? Even knowing where your time is going can make time feel more abundant. Time researcher and speaker Laura Vanderkam found that people who are “more in tune with what they are spending their time on also feel like time [is] more abundant.”16 When we don’t know what we spend our time on, time can feel like a big unknown.
Time Use Diaries (TUDs) have long been a way for researchers to track how people use their time, and can be a way for you to become in tune with your own time usage. Researchers like Jonathan Gershuny and John Robinson used TUDs to study large populations of people and trends in how they were using their time.
Famously and controversially, researcher John Robinson declared in his book Time for Life that most people have about 40 hours of leisure time per week, and that even working mothers have more than 30 hours of leisure time per week.8 Working mother and author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time
Brigid Schulte challenged Robinson’s position in her book and learned about Robinson’s classifications of leisure, where her pockets of leisure time were hidden, and how she could reclaim her leisure.
Schulte began her discovery process with a Time Use Diary. Robinson agreed to analyze her time usage once she had tracked her time for one year, which Schulte did conscientiously in a notebook, (often giving more details than Robinson needed). As she unraveled her year’s worth of time tracking, Robinson pointed out the unexpected areas where Schulte had leisure, despite her belief that she had barely any at all. By the time she finished writing the book, Schulte had picked up new habits and new knowledge to un-busy her life, feel more at peace, and be more productive. It began with auditing her schedule.
Up next, let’s take a look at a couple of ways to declutter our time and feel less busy.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard
As a first step: you can complete a study of your own time!
Everyone’s lives are different. It’s impossible to have a one size fits all method to become less busy. Use the worksheet below as a tool to look at your own time use. One week of tracking should be enough to begin to understand your time, what you’re really doing, and areas you can improve to create a schedule more in line with your values.
There are 168 hours in a week. If 40 hours are spent working and 8 hours per night are spent sleeping, there are still 72 hours left for other things.
This step is about taking a real look at your schedule and asking yourself if you are using your most precious resource in the ways you wish.
1. Schedule Your Priorities Like They’re a Broken Water Heater
“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” – Stephen Covey
Laura Vanderkam is a writer, speaker, and time researcher who believes that we all have “the power to fill our lives with the things that deserve to be there.”17 In her TED talk, Vanderkam tells the story of a woman whose water heater broke during the week she was logging a time diary for one of Vanderkam’s studies. The woman spent 7 hours that week cleaning up the mess.
Where did that 7 hours come from? If that same woman had been asked to set aside 7 hours that week to train for a marathon, or mentor 7 deserving people, would she have done it? More likely, she would have said “No way! I’m too busy!”
How to Gain Control of Your Free Time | Laura Vanderkam
Vanderkam uses this story to illustrate that time is elastic, and that we can make time for the things that really matter. “We cannot make more time, but time will stretch to accommodate what we choose to put into it. So the key to time management is treating our priorities as the equivalent of that broken water heater. Vanderkam provides some exercises to help you figure out what your priorities are.
Here are a couple questions to help us reflect on what we are prioritizing in our life. Press the button to try it out!
The exercise above gives us an idea for potential priorities. To try it, (perhaps on a Friday afternoon) put your priorities onto your schedule for the following week. Scheduling your priorities first ensures they will receive the attention they deserve, and that they will be treated as urgently as that broken water heater. This strategy will allow you to schedule what matters, and to let less important activities fall away.
“Even if we are busy, we have time for what matters. And when we focus on what matters, we can build the lives we want in the time we’ve got.”17
2. Focus on the Essential
Buffett believes that numbers 6-25 on your list are things in your life that are important enough to you to distract you from your 5 most important goals, and therefore will be the most tempting ways to spend your time other than on what is most important to you. Buffett ruthlessly eliminates the nonessential from his life in order to focus on his most important goals.18
Although not all of us wish to be just like Warren Buffett, his system is a great way to filter out priorities and keep long-term goals at the forefront of our minds, in order to maximize the impact our time can have on our top 5 life goals. Of course, our goals may shift over time, and eliminating a priority may make us realize how important it actually was. This is why we can reevaluate our own goals at any time as well, perhaps once per year – comparing our priority lists each year could help us realize which priorities have endured, and which ones have come and gone.
3. Consider Minimalism
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates
Focusing on the essential isn’t just about time use. Busyness can manifest in our lives in physical forms. As has been studied and practiced for centuries through the pseudoscience of Feng Shui, how much stuff we have and the way in which that stuff is organized can make a huge difference in our lives physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. Not only does physical clutter cause stress (aka mental clutter) that can have long-term impacts on health,13 but owning fewer possessions can make our lives less busy by reducing the amount of items we need to clean, organize, and/or financially maintain.19
Becoming less busy can mean reducing physical busyness in order to create more restorative space for our busy minds.
One study found that mothers that described their homes as “cluttered” or “unfinished” more often had a depressed mood over the course of the day compared with women that referred to their homes as restorative places.13 Clutter can also affect sleep quality,20 and the likelihood that we will eat more junk food.21
Maintaining a clean environment at home can do more than simply impress dinner guests.
Many of us may think of Marie Kondo’s famous line “Does it spark joy?” when deciding on whether or not to keep an item. She made great strides in the decluttering space, selling 10 million copies worldwide in 42 countries of her series The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
Minimalism is the goal of Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, a few thought leaders spreading the message of minimalism on their blog, and through their 30-Day Minimalism Game. The game requires participants to pair up with a friend, coworker or family member, and give things away at an accelerating rate. On Day 1, give away 1 item. On Day 2, give away 2 items. On Day 3, give away 3 items, and so on. Whoever makes it the furthest in the 30 days wins the game. Participants that make it all 30 days will have given away 496 items.
This pair lauds minimalism as a practice that allows us to focus less on stuff and more on life. “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”22 they say on their blog. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, just think back on some of the greatest minimalist thought leaders in history – Jesus, Lao Tzu, Socrates… they all had something to say about minimalism.23
4. Combat the Planning Fallacy: Get Better At Estimating How Long Things Will Take
Humans struggle to predict how long tasks will actually take to complete. In 1958, the Government of New South Wales authorized the building of the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia.24 The plan was to complete the Opera House by 1963, for an estimated cost of $7 million. However, the structure was not completed until 1973, and cost a whopping $102 million dollars to finish.25
The “planning fallacy” may have been at work. The planning fallacy is a prediction phenomenon in which an optimism bias leads people to grossly underestimate the time required to complete a task.26 We tend to be too optimistic when thinking about future tasks and guess that they can be completed in a much smaller amount of time than is accurate. This phenomenon occurs regardless of knowledge of past experiences.27
The planning fallacy contributes to busyness because as we underestimate the amount of time required to complete tasks, we may fill up our schedules with tasks that end up bleeding into one another and taking much longer to complete than expected. We may be left working on tasks that we imagined would be done a long time ago, and cutting into free time in order to make up for lost time, or make up for a missed deadline. Being able to accurately predict how long tasks will take to complete is an asset in time management and a way to ensure we don’t schedule ourselves overcapacity.
Strategies for Combating the Planning Fallacy:
Instead of predicting how long a large task will take overall, break the task down into its subparts, and predict how long each individual subpart will take to complete. The smaller the subpart the better. Studies have shown that the sum of the subparts will usually be greater than a prediction of the overall task, and therefore more in line with how long it will actually take to complete.28
“I think it will take 2 and a half hours to bake this cake from scratch!”
“I think it will take 1 hour to shop for ingredients + 15 minutes to organize materials and preheat the oven + 30 minutes to combine the wet and dry ingredients + 15 minutes to put everything in the cake pan and then oven + 30 minutes to make the frosting + 2 hours to cool the cake + 30 minutes to frost the cake
…for a total of 5 hours! Maybe I don’t have time before the party…”
Reference Class Forecasting
Look at similar past projects and their outcomes in order to make a more accurate plan for how a future project will turn out timing-wise. Since our instinct is to optimistically ignore past experiences, go out of your way to compare and contrast your plan with how things have gone in the past.
“Last time I baked a cake from scratch, I think I remember starting at 10am and being totally done at 3pm…”
Predict For Someone Else
The planning fallacy is mitigated when we predict task completion times for other people.27 We tend to be more pessimistic when predicting task completion times for other people. Before scheduling a plan, predict task completion times as if your friend or colleague were working on the project instead of you. This should give you a more accurate prediction. Or, have a friend or colleague predict task completion times for your tasks and compare them to what you had originally planned.
“Realistically, I think it would take Jessica 5 hours to bake this cake from scratch.”
Perhaps less scientific, but easy to remember, when making a plan, simply double the amount of time you believe will be required to complete a task, and then put it in your schedule. If you’re a bit high on your prediction, that built-in wiggle room will allow you to be more thoughtful on the project, and even take some rest.
“I think it’s going to take me 2.5 hours to bake this cake from scratch, so it will probably actually take me closer to 5 hours.”
Reviewing Plans After the Fact
Make your own plan for how much you tend to miscalculate the length of tasks! Before completing tasks, write down how long you think it will take you. Then, once you’ve completed the task, you can see how much time to add to future tasks when planning them out.
“I think it’s going to take me 1 hour to bake this cake.”
“Oh! It took me 5 hours to bake the cake! Maybe I need to multiply all my time predictions by 5…”
5. Cultivate Spare Capacity: Make Space for Growth When the Opportunity Arises
“The height of a tree depends on not just the seed, but the size of the pot you plant it in. Without space to grow, you’ll only end up with a shrub.” -Scott H. Young Blog 28
In its native sense, spare capacity is defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “the ability of a factory, company, or industry to produce more of a product than is now being produced.”29 In this context, spare capacity is likely seen as a negative trait, since most companies and industries are attempting to produce as much as they possibly can.
However, the term can also be applied more personally, to an individual’s ability to produce more than they currently are. But in this sense, the goal is not to be as productive as possible. Scott H. Young, the author of the blog post “The Value of Spare Capacity,” talks about the importance of cultivating this spare capacity – purposefully not pushing ourselves to full capacity at all times, so that we may make space for growth when the opportunity arises.
Young uses the term spare capacity more to describe the setting aside of time to intentionally work on personal growth, and to pursue experiences and projects that won’t pay but will be personally fulfilling. He asks the reader if the maintenance of their current lifestyle can take a 25% reduction in time, in order to create a larger pot for their seed.
Especially in a world where many of us have access to a world of information with the click of a button, cultivating spare capacity can simply mean setting aside more time to contemplate and process the information we are reading, rather than continuing to assault our brains with more article headlines, news videos, or timeline photos. It actually becomes more difficult to detect misinformation when we don’t give ourselves time to process the information we are reading.30 Spare capacity can help with this.
Strategies for Cultivating Spare Capacity
Practice Strategic Incompetence
A term recently coined in a Wall Street Journal article, but an idea as old as time, strategic incompetence originally refers to the practice of pretending not to know how to do undesirable tasks in order to avoid doing them.31 While this could provide a certain entertainment value, how about selecting which tasks are most important to you, and allowing yourself to be “good enough” at other things, rather than “perfect”? It’s okay not to be the best at everything, and in fact, it is freeing, because you can simply focus on improving the skills, relationships, and experiences you hold most dear.
“Since my focus right now is invested in being excellent at painting, it’s okay that I just play disc golf for fun, and not try to be the best at it!”
Monitor Information Input & Output
Using apps like Screen Time, you can monitor how much time you spend reading the news, or inputting information into your brain. Keeping general tabs on how much information you’re inputting can give you an idea of how much processing time to set aside. Try to keep your input versus contemplation time generally balanced, as both activities are important, and this can allow you to truly process what you are reading and consuming.
“Last week I spent 4 hours per day on my phone… maybe next week I can try to cut some of that out and spend it resting or sitting outside instead.”
Chunk Life Admin
Set aside time in a day to do all of the small low priority chores that need to be done. Paying bills, answering emails, scheduling appointments, and folding laundry can all fit into this bucket. Rather than breaking up your day to do these chores in between tasks, set aside time to do them quickly altogether.
“This week I need to do my laundry, pay my car registration, go to the doctor, respond to texts, and go to the store. I’m going to schedule Friday morning 8am – 10am to do as much of that as I can.”
Plug Your Ears
Be okay with not knowing about the latest trend, or the exact political drama going on that day. News and pop culture are mercurial and can have an impact on our mood. Checking in on these sources of information less frequently frees up time and mental space.
“Hey did you hear about Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber breaking up last week, and Justin Bieber starting to date…”
“I actually haven’t heard about it… and that’s okay with me.”
6. Schedule White Space
“Free time isn’t just a reward for hard work; it’s a necessary prerequisite for doing good work.”
– Dan Sullivan, Business Coach
In a fast-paced world overloaded with information and opportunity, we need more time to process, not less.
Actively setting aside “white space”32 in our schedules – or in other words, blocks of time where we refuse to schedule anything – can be a way to allow ourselves to process, to plan for the future, or to attend to unexpected emergencies.
Hofstadter’s Law, a term coined by cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, states that “things always take longer than you think.”33 Much like combatting the planning fallacy, literally building in buffers to your schedule will ensure that you have more time to process, and more spare capacity with what’s leftover when you’re done working.34
Scheduled white space can be thought of as a strategic thinking period to reflect and improve upon one’s own process, but it can also be used when things come up last minute, rather than eating into other plans. Creating that wiggle room in one’s schedule simply allows for flexibility, or when not everything goes perfectly to plan.
Knowledge workers (people whose jobs are not manual labor) especially “need space in their workday to balance the need to complete tasks and to also invent more efficient ways to complete those tasks.”36 In “Beyond Busyness: Creating Slack in the Organization,” Karlene Kerfoot argues that healthcare organizations need “slack time” in order to function at the highest levels and receive feedback from frontline workers on how to improve the work itself. Managers should not simply be focused on maintaining the status quo, but on moving “the organization into innovative and surprising ways and to make difficult and impossible things happen.” Creating an architecture of participation for all employees, which means actually setting aside time in the schedule for employees to think about ways to improve a company, can unleash much more brainpower, and improve the quality of the work itself.
However, if you schedule white space and it always ends up being your overflow for work you misjudged the timing of, you may want to consider more closely what this white space time needs to be for you: reflection, calmness, breath… find a method that works from you and refrain from always using it for overflow work.
6. Understand Productivity
Many of us stay busy because of a misunderstanding of productivity. It’s not simply longer work hours that make us more productive but being deliberate and strategic about our work and rest. Here are some facts about productivity that can help you understand how to get more out of your work.
The Science of Productivity
— Willpower is an exhaustible source that can be used up
— Starting a project can be the biggest barrier to productivity, so get started
— The Zeigarnik Effect can propel us to finish a task we’ve already started
— Deliberate practice: periods of intense work and breaks, with disciplined scheduling is how effective people work
– Give yourself a deadline and you’ll be much more likely to complete your task
– Track your progress
– Stop multitasking, you’ll be less productive
– Break your tasks into smaller chunks that seem easier to chew
90 Minute Pulses: Ultradian Rhythms are most often associated with sleep, but, as “Father of Sleep” Nathaniel Kleitman found, Basic Rest Activity Cycles or BRACs also exist when we are awake. Ultradian Rhythms are essentially our brain’s natural balancing out of our sodium and potassium levels, and affect our energy levels. We have alternating periods of high-frequency brain activity (about 90 minutes) and low frequency brain activity (about 20 minutes) throughout the day. When we are working really hard, we may hit a wall because of our brain shifting to a lower frequency to balance out levels of sodium and potassium. Working in 90 minute chunks and 20 minute breaks (or 20 minutes of less demanding work) can be an effective way to get the most out of our high frequency moments, and not burnout from trying to work out of rhythm with our bodies.
Rest & Recover: Recovering from high-performance periods of work is important to productivity. A study of student performers in Berlin found that the students that performed best were the ones that worked the most deliberately, and also rested the most. Famously remembered as the “10,000 hours” study, it is often taken as a reason to simply put more hours into mastering a skill. However, the study actually pointed towards a more nuanced picture of productivity: the students that practiced and rested deliberately in 90-minute chunks, for about 4 hours per day, and got about an hour more sleep than the other students, actually performed the best. Recovery and practice were both important to their success.
Productivity Drop-off: For every profession, there is a point at which productivity drops off, even if work hours are extended. In a Stanford study, researchers found that “below an hours threshold, output is proportional to hours; above a threshold, output rises at a decreasing rate as hours increase.”37 While output does increase with more work hours at first, after a certain threshold, productivity can’t be maintained. We hit a wall. “Research that attempts to quantify the relationship between hours worked and productivity found that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work-week, and falls off a cliff after 55 hours – so much so that someone who puts in 70 hours produces nothing more with those extra 15 hours.”38 These effects vary for different kinds of work, but at a certain point, working more simply leads to exhaustion, and costs employers money in the form of on-the-job injuries, accidents, and errors. Overworking has no good outcomes for the employee or organization.
Sleep Deficit: Going without enough sleep can have serious impacts. The general negative effects of sleep deficit are well-known, yet “time machismo” still exists in many workplaces as a sign of dedication to the company. Companies would be better off modeling healthy sleep patterns for their employees, as sleep deprivation kills performance. Going four or five days with an average of four hours of sleep per night creates the same level of cognitive impairment as legal drunkenness.39 “Stay awake longer than 18 consecutive hours, and your reaction speed, short-term and long-term memory, ability to focus, decision-making capacity, math processing, cognitive speed, and spatial orientation all start to suffer.” In New Jersey, driving while sleep deprived is considered “recklessness” and can be prosecuted.39
7. Set Clear Boundaries
Setting clear boundaries for yourself and your work can be a way to compartmentalize stress and ensure that your free time isn’t eaten up by the flexibility of smartphones and email. As technology has become a given in office settings, many have gained the flexibility to work from anywhere, anytime. And, even for workers that aren’t required to email outside of work, the demands of family and life beyond work can easily creep into rest times via smart devices. Setting clear boundaries about when you will work, rest, or use your devices can increase efficiency and reduce stress.
Harvard Business School professor and author of Sleeping with Your Smartphone Leslie Perlow calls this phenomenon “The Cycle of Responsiveness,” in which an ability and desire to respond quickly to work-related requests becomes a greater and greater demand to be “on” 24/7, and able to handle work-related needs and “emergencies”.
Through Perlow’s research, she learned that “accepting the pressure to be ‘on’ — usually stemming from some seemingly legitimate reason, such as requests from clients or customers or teammates in different time zones — in turn makes us accommodate the pressure even more.” Once we decide that reacting quickly to our work is important even outside of work hours, we do it more and more, altering our schedules, our routines, and even our life choices in order to be able to meet more demands.40 This in turn creates a cycle in which we expect ourselves and those around us to prioritize responsiveness above all else.
What happens when ‘responsiveness’ is prioritized above other qualities, like ‘thoughtfulness,’ ‘effectiveness,’ or even ‘calm,’? Responsiveness easily eclipses other values by taking away the attention required to focus on, or even come up with, other convictions, desires or boundaries. And the more responsive we are, the more responsive we are pressured to become. It’s an autonomy paradox: Devices that were supposed to make us more autonomous have actually made us less so by sucking up all our free time and shifting work expectations to exist outside of work, too. “Work from anywhere, anytime” has become “work from everywhere all the time.”41
8. Reduce Time Confetti
“Those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity.” – Jean de la Bruylere
A term coined by Brigid Schulte in her book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, “time confetti” is the fragmentation of time via task switching until it amounts to nothing more than tiny shreds of broken focus. Especially in an age where information and communication can be accessible at the touch of a button, time confetti is abundant. Visually, the breaking up of our schedules emulates the little rectangles of paper bursting from a New Year’s popper, as conceptualized by Harvard Business school assistant professor Ashley Whillans in the figure below. (Source)41
Switching tasks leaves “attention residue” in our brains, which makes it difficult to switch quickly from one task to another.9 If we switch tasks frequently, as is common with the increase in smartphone use, we are fragmenting our attention, and leaving a residue over our work or free time.
This can make it more difficult to focus on work. If we allow correspondences with others to become top priority by jumping at any chance to respond to an email or text, we are also leaving our focus with those correspondences, and taking much longer to complete tasks. Multi-tasking, or the continual switching of tasks, simply means we apply less effective focus to more tasks more slowly. To complete tasks efficiently and effectively, practice chunking time to work.
And in terms of leisure, constant interruptions makes free time less restful, which can lead to a perception of time scarcity that is not totally accurate to reality. Because it’s so easy to create a high activity density with only our smartphones, the act of sitting on the couch can turn from restful to restless at the click of a few buttons. In addition, difficult tasks will be easier to complete if we are not dependent on receiving high dopamine jumps from our brains. Working in a state of dopamine withdrawal may be a more effective way to get difficult tasks finished.
Reducing Experience of Time Scarcity
Savor the Moment
Having control over your schedule is one thing, but having control over your outlook is another. Even in situations where your work hours are long and necessary to support your needs, you can still take ownership over the moments in which you are not working, and realize that stressing about work outside of work won’t help.
On the Tim Ferriss show, Derek Sivers shares an experience when he shifted from “Huffing and Puffing” and going about life in the most stressful way, to savoring the moment – and how they took up almost the same amount of time. His outlook and simply taking an extra 2 minutes to enjoy an activity he normally sped through at full force made a world of difference. He gained such a higher level of enjoyment and reduced stress by just deciding to take it easy while doing an activity he normally suffered through.
The Art of Living with Less Stress
- Derek Sivers used to bike as fast as he could along a Santa Monica beach, and it always took 43 minutes
- He began to enjoy the ride less and less because he associated it with tremendous hard work
- One day, he decided to simply do the ride and enjoy it, rather than cycling at full force
- That day, the ride took 45 minutes, only 2 minutes more, and he savored and enjoyed the experience so much more
- Sometimes simply deciding to take it easy and enjoy can make a world of difference, while not actually taking that much longer
- Instead of optimizing every moment, realize that the optimization might not actually have as much of an impact as you expect, and savoring the moment could be so much more enjoyable
Awe can stretch our perception of time. Here’s a popcorn collection of ways to experience awe daily.
Spend Time in Nature
Spending as little as 10 minutes outside can reduce stress.3
Try New Things
Doing new things makes life more memorable – one way to stretch one’s time in memory.
Appreciate Art (and Life)
Staring at a painting for hours = an exercise in appreciation. Appreciation = an exercise in slowing down.
Getting inspired can make time feel more abundant. “When researchers induced feelings of awe1 in people—by showing them video clips of people next to vast things like whales or waterfalls—it altered their perception of time such that the people felt like they had more time on their hands.”42 Some study participants felt so time-rich that they signed up to volunteer.
Ryan Holiday, author of Stillness is the Key recommends seeking inspiration and wisdom from ancient philosophers.
Busyness & Privilege – Time is A Resource
Having some level of control over one’s schedule or line of work is a privilege that not everyone shares. Out of control busyness causes the most long-term stress impacts – when one is forced to work constantly to survive, it takes a toll on physical and mental health. If you are able to explore alternatives to being busy, that flexibility is something to appreciate.
If you have the capacity to switch your schedule around and take agency in your self-care and downtime, take advantage of it. And advocate for those that do not have that privilege – advocate for your community to adopt living wages and better workplace policies for people and their families. In the US, the federal minimum wage won’t cover living expenses in any state.44 This is a gap that those with more flexibility in their schedules can address.
If you find yourself constantly in a state of out-of-control busyness, try to carve out small rituals that you keep with yourself, even if they don’t take up much time. These can last as little as 5 minutes per day, but try to make them consistent and daily, as a small promise you keep to yourself — as something personal that you can look forward to each day, where you don’t have to worry. Five to twenty minutes of meditation, alone time, coloring, bathing, and breathing each day can be set aside as something that you have 100% in your control to take care of yourself. These small rituals can be a daily reminder of self-worth and self-control, and help combat stress.
In This Section…
- We considered the difference between becoming less busy in order to truly rest, versus becoming less busy in order to optimize one’s schedule and cram in further activity. We looked at different sorts of busyness and how to address them in different ways, including objective levels of activity and personal levels of stress. We explored ways to find time in our schedules, especially for our priorities, which can easily be pushed out if we do not treat them like they belong at the top of our list. We looked at ways to not only declutter our schedules, but to declutter our minds and homes by reducing material possessions.
- We learned about a handful of planning techniques that can help us more accurately predict how long activities will take to complete, learning from the mistakes of past architects at the Sydney Opera House. We thought about ways we could increase spare capacity and white space in our schedules, while maximizing productivity by understanding its science. We talked about setting clear boundaries with technology and other focus-breakers in order to reduce time confetti and increase deep work. And finally, we talked about ways to expand our thinking and the feeling of time abundance by savoring the moment and experiencing awe.
Though life may feel like a whirlwind of activity and diversion, there are ways to focus in, prioritize, and expand our thinking to feel and be less busy. Learning how to plan and assess time accurately can help us limit what we are adding to our bucket of priorities, as well as getting in touch with those priorities themselves! Because the true secret to being less busy? Doing less.
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