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Don’t be busy, be productive: leading a life of focus and productivity

Our society glorifies busyness but doesn’t fairly reward productivity. We all lead lives we may term as ‘busy’. The truth of this is in the eye of the beholder. We also go beyond this and assume that people in certain situations are without a doubt busy and we accept this in our consciousness and we […]

Our society glorifies busyness but doesn’t fairly reward productivity. We all lead lives we may term as ‘busy’. The truth of this is in the eye of the beholder. We also go beyond this and assume that people in certain situations are without a doubt busy and we accept this in our consciousness and we also glorify this. For example, an entrepreneur, someone with young children, or a student who going to school but also works. Although we don’t need to outright refute these assumptions, we should challenge why we believe this and confront the way we idolize those who are busy verses those who are productive and effective with what they do.

Let’s start at the beginning where the concept of ‘being busy’ comes to life: when we say it. You run into someone you haven’t seen in a while and you put them the customary query “how have you been?” They look at you, exhale and smile with “busy”. It may be more or less dramatic than this but that is how that person felt to respond to us. This is our moment to realize that we are also primed to give this response, and we often do. Now, none of this way of responding is malicious or necessarily strategic for most people. It is certainly common as part of phatic conversation, that is those surface-level exchanges or small-talk we have all throughout the day. When someone tells us that they have been busy, we infer they’ve been occupied with very important matters in their life and career, that are deeply engrossing and perhaps all encompassing. It also signals they may believe their work and their lives are more significant than others because of how busy they have been. When we hear this, or more graphically, when you see this in TV and film, the response isn’t “I am so sorry to hear that!” It is more commonly “oh yeah? Really? Great!”. We applaud busyness because we believe it is symbolic of importance, or someone thriving in the world, either in their careers or in their personal lives.

Reflect on times you know you’ve responded that way. It may even have been today or yesterday. This response is also common when someone says “How are you? I haven’t heard from you in ages!” We respond “Yeah! Sorry. I’ve been busy with…” Let’s also take a moment to realize that is a very shady and rude response. When we respond this way, we are in effect saying, “It’s true, I COULD have made an effort or prioritized reaching out to you, but I didn’t. Instead, I did literally anything else and now, I don’t have a good answer for you. So, I’ll tell you I’ve been busy because that is what is socially acceptable as an excuse”. When it comes to the people we care about, it is about MAKING the time, not FINDING the time. So being busy doesn’t hold up well too those paying attention.

Now, I am a person who has hustled many things, second jobs, side projects, school and work in my adult years while ensuring I have a personal life and leisure time along the way.

As an entrepreneur and as someone who for the majority of the past 9 years has been a part of many extracurriculars, doing freelance communications work, serving on boards and committees and also having a day job, I certainly could have described myself as being “very busy”, but more accurately, very busy at certain points in time. It’s key to not use busy as an adjective to describe you, but instead to use the term to describe particular seasons and moments in our lives where we have greater volume of things that require our attention and presence. You should be able to look back and pin point a time in your life where you were “super busy”. You should be able to know why and identify a beginning and an end to things that caused you to become busy. If this was recent or current, reflect and ask yourself, I may have been busy, but was I productive?

I often look at my calendar for the week ahead and say, “I have a busy week coming up”. It may be filed with work obligations, an evening course, dinner with a friend, yoga, or a dentist appointment (all admirable and potentially necessary things). During weeks like this for me, this means that I have less leisure time or time for myself This is, however, where the assumption lives. That someone, who is having a busy week, filled with “things to do”, and less time for leisure (for themselves) is more important or ought to be revered for that reason alone. This is of course, illogical. More to the point, someone who consistently does not have enough time for themselves, to reflect, to exercise, to sleep, to decompress and enjoy other pursuits, is most likely to remain consistently busy with diminishing productivity. This is the health and wellness pitfalls of always being busy. As a society, we glorify those who work hard, and play hard. But there has been a countermovement that many of embraced, to work smarter, not harder. In a world where the tide of demands at work and at home grows with the rigour of distractions, our ability to thrive in life rests on our ability to be more productive. We know we cannot add more hours to the day or days to the week, and we know there will be real health consequences if we trade sleep for the low-quality work that we are able to produce while sleep-deprived.

So, what can we realistically do to be less busy, and more productive?

  1. Interestingly, stop telling people you’ve been busy. Stop using that word to describe yourself, and instead, if you must, use to describe a season in your life, which may be right now, although you may not know it until further down the road. When people ask how you’ve been, start telling the truth. Either you’ve really been enjoying and thriving in your life obligations, or you’ve been struggling, you’ve been learning, or you’ve been growing through your journey. Let’s get away from the fake smiles, and social-accepted rubber stamp responses we give to people we think we care about. Stop saying you’ve been busy, or that you’re “still here” or “surviving”- because that isn’t good enough. And if you think it’s good enough for you, to lower the bar for others. Continue to show up in your obligations with your whole self, failures, successes and all. And start speaking the truth about the complexities of your life, not fearing you’ll make someone else uncomfortable while you experience discomfort.
  2. Don’t FIND time for things that matter, like your family, friends, exercise, yoga, reading, relaxing and time off. Start MAKING the time. These things are essential to your ability to being 100% present for the things you need to show up to. They are critical to your physiological and mental health and support your ability to be creative, imaginative and adaptable to life’s circumstances.
  3. Stop glorifying other people who tell you they’ve been busy. With kindness, dig further than the surface. Ask “what have you been up to?” “What’s new and different” “What is your biggest focus right now?” These questions don’t allow for surface and benign responses but cause us to think further and respond to a question no one else may have every asked us. This is how connection lives and this is how you make an impression. When we are asked a question we haven’t been asked before, it causes us to walk away and really reflect and consider how we would respond differently in the future.
  4. Say “no”. If you’re Canadian, say “sorry, not this week”. We fear that saying no will be impolite, or disrespectful to those who specifically offered or requested something of us. We also live in a world where we have a constant fear of missing out (FOMO). We don’t want to be left out, late to the party or pass up an opportunity that may or may not come along again. In reality, we cannot say yes to everything although we may want to in order to advance our careers. Saying “no” to another “thing” on our plate can be smart and strategic. Its empowering to be able to turn down an opportunity (even a good one), it leaves us open to other possibilities and can also keep us in-demand in the eyes of others. Sometimes we need to say no for our own wellness.

We live in a busy world, but we don’t have to accept that we live busy lives. I support your hustle. You’re working, education, parenting. I also support your making time for that which truly matters to you and supporting each other in leading lives of focus and productivity.

This article can also be viewed on Jordan’s Medium page.

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