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The myth of busyness

Emma Isaacs is the Founder and Global CEO of Business Chicks, bestselling author of Winging It, and mom to six kids aged 11 and under. You'd be forgiven for thinking she's one busy woman.

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I’ve got a confession to make: I’m not busy. My life is very full and I have a lot of responsibilities but I’m not busy. And I have no interest in being busy ever again.

You see, there’s a big distinction between being busy and being productive. Busy means doing stuff and being productive means getting stuff done.

Robin Sharma agrees, telling us ‘Don’t confuse being busy with being productive. Many people are simply busy being busy.’

Too often we wear our busyness like a badge of honor, proud that our lives are so complicated and worthy of sharing with others. Parents appear hurried and overwhelmed at the school gate, rolling their eyes at the next activity they must deliver their children to, or bemoaning the fact that they’re late for some other task.

While we’re busy telling everyone just how busy we are, it’s useful to note that, for the past century, our work hours have actually been in decline and haven’t increased as most of us would be led to believe. For the past five decades our work hours have flatlined at around 40 hours per week. This might not be your reality, but it’s the reality of the vast majority of humans who typically dedicate around this same amount of time to their work each week. Billionaire Jack Ma, who founded online e-commerce giant Alibaba says, “My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy.”

What’s really changed is how we spend our time. We’ll happily spend hours scrolling through social media at night, but we complain we don’t have time to start that business we always wanted to or to read a novel like we used to. We tell ourselves that we never get quality time with the people we love and then we sit at home at night mindlessly scrolling through Netflix, looking for something to watch.

In the workplace, we don’t do much better. It’s been reported that the average executive spends 27 hours a week in meetings. That’s more than half the working week spent planning and talking about the work we’re going to do.

The danger of being ‘busy’ is that we’re distracted by tasks that don’t always matter and we use this busyness as a crutch to avoid the ones that are.

Here are some strategies to move away from being busy and into being productive.

Allow yourself time for daydreaming: Being ‘always on’ and being busy has distracted us from thinking time which decreases our creativity. Staying in the cycle of busy means there’s no space for anything else to flourish. Every now and then, train yourself to go for a walk without your phone. Go to a café without your laptop, taking a notepad and pen, or a book, or nothing at all so you can let your mind wander. Years ago, Spanx Founder Sara Blakely discovered that her best thinking happens in the car. It was on a car trip more than 20 years ago now that she came up with her brand name ‘Spanx,’ pulling over to write it on a piece of scrap paper. These days, Blakely lives too close to the Spanx headquarters to allow herself much time to think on the way to work, but is famous for feigning ‘fake commutes’ to create space to think creatively. She’s been quoted as saying. “I live really close to Spanx, so I’ve created what my friends call my ‘fake commute,’ and I get up an hour early before I’m supposed to go to Spanx, and I drive around aimlessly in Atlanta so that I can have my thoughts come to me.” Genius!

Kick the email addiction: This habit is a hard one to break, but these days it’s a main cause of our busyness predicament. There are reports that the average office worker now receives 121 emails per day. Another study uncovered that we check our phones on average once every 12 minutes (or over an incredible 80 times a day). The reason you love receiving emails is because when one arrives in your inbox, you get a nice little release of dopamine, the chemical in our brains which makes us feel good, motivated, and helps us concentrate too. It’s as if we’re rewarded each time an email comes in, and this keeps us locked in a treacherous cycle of wanting more. So how do we work to cure this addiction? One way is to remove any push notifications you receive to your phone whenever an email comes in and also close down your inbox on your computer, so it’s not open in another tab all the time. Also try and discipline yourself to check your inbox only two or three times a day.

Pick up the phone: That decision you need to make with a colleague? It could be achieved in minutes in one quick phone call rather than unnecessary time spent back and forth over email deliberating which way to go.

Use your inbox as a to-do list: I use my inbox as a to-do list, so there’ll never be more than say 100 emails in there at once, 200 if I’m really behind. I freak out when I see someone’s inbox at 34,000 or a similar number in the thousands – how can they ever think straight and find everything they need? Another trick is to never double handle messages. Read, respond, delete. You’ll get close to inbox zero much faster and enjoy the feeling of being more in control of your time.

Train others: Explain to your colleagues and team members how you like to receive emails. Everyone in my team knows to keep anything they send me short and sweet. Get to your point as fast as you can and try not to waste time. If you struggle with this, try sending emails (where appropriate) from your phone as they’ll likely be shorter.

Apply tunnel vision focus: Do one thing at a time, and train yourself to focus on that one task only until it’s done (or until you’ve progressed it a lot.) Highly productive people have retrained their brains to focus intently and clearly, and get more done thanks to this focus.

Use time to your advantage: If you’re anything like me and most productive in the mornings, then use that time wisely to do the tasks that require you to focus most. I am less focused in the afternoon and things tend to take longer for me as my energy wanes as the day passes, so I make sure I do my work in the mornings and schedule the bulk of my meetings in the afternoons.

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