Two different clients recently asked me this question. On the surface, their stories were very
different. Janel is a dedicated stay-at-home mom who spends a lot of time cooking from scratch and volunteering at her children’s schools. But she barely has time for a morning shower, let alone a relaxed conversation with her husband.
Matt is a software developer who works typically long hours at a startup. He’s smart and talented and is making a respectable salary, but rarely does he spend a weekend with his girlfriend exploring the city or hiking in the hills.
What else can I do, each of them asked me? This stuff needs to get done.
The problem isn’t so much what they do, but rather how they do it.
Why we’re busy
We stay busy because we’re rewarded for it. It’s seen as a crowning achievement when someone triples sales, launches a new product, or founds a company. The cost?
- In the U.S., 85% of men and 66% of women work more than 40 hour weeks.
- Not only that, but we rank dead last internationally on paid vacations and holidays.
But it doesn’t stop there – the list of email, texts, errands, and chores is endless.
But the biggest culprit isn’t jobs, or kids, or volunteer opportunities, or even email. The biggest culprit is our perspective.
Vases or faces?
Remember the optical illusion where if you look at it one way you see faces, but if you look at it a bit differently you see a vase?
It’s a matter of shifting your perspective. Both are true. Or maybe neither.
So what’s wrong with our perspective on being busy? It’s that we don’t have a choice. We think we need to be busy to be successful so that we can be happy. It looks like this:
Busy → Successful → Happy
But in reality it’s the other way around. Albert Schweitzer said it well: “Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.”
Happy → Successful
Myths about Busy
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some common myths (and truths) about being busy.
- Busy means you’re productive. (Not necessarily)
- Busy means you’re valuable. (You might be valuable, but it’s not because you’re busy)
- You’ll lose your job if you don’t pitch in. (Probably not)
- Your kids will suffer. (Kids do need time, but not so much that you can’t also take care of yourself)
In fact, being busy undermines our best selves. Busy couples tell me they don’t have time for homework between sessions – when the homework is to appreciate each other, out loud, once a day. Busy students don’t have time to ponder the life lessons in a great piece of literature when they have to finish two chapters a night.
No one who’s overloaded by “busy” can plan well, solve important problems, be creative, or take care of themselves.
It’s not just about your resume
There’s an exercise floating around that asks you to consider how you want to be remembered. The suggestion is to stop writing your resume, and start writing your eulogy.
If you do this exercise, you probably won’t find yourself writing things like this:
- She always took on extra work.
- He stayed late at the office every day.
- She did a presentation every month.
- He cooked every meal from scratch.
Instead, you’ll find yourself writing:
- He often spent Saturdays in the part playing ball with his kids.
- We loved to spend weekends together exploring San Francisco, enjoying the fresh air and laughing together.
- He really held the vision at work. It kept everyone on track and working together.
How to un-busy yourself
Success isn’t about the number of things you do in a day. It’s about the quality of your life. If you’d like to “un-busy” your life, you can start with these two simple steps:
- Think of one thing you’d like to be remembered for. It might be how well you connect with your friends or how often you laugh. It might be about skipping rocks with your kids or sharing a home-cooked meal with your family every night.
- Think of one small step you can take that will move you in that direction. Have lunch with a friend next Friday. Invite your partner for a walk around your neighborhood. Take your kids to the zoo. Do something that you love, and that connects you with the people you care about.
Now, repeat this every day.
Vacation for life
Matt’s first step was to block out time around meetings, so he had time to prepare for them and time to process what was learned afterward. He felt less busy, more space in his day, right away.
Janel cut back on her volunteer activities so the time she spent with her family was more relaxed. The difference was noticeable, and her husband commented.
As Seth Godin says, “Instead of wondering when your next vacation is, maybe you should set up a life you don’t need to escape from.”
Think about the vases and faces, and decide how to look at your commitments and responsibilities. Put the resume away for awhile. You can always come back to it when you need it.
Prioritize happiness. Give up the busy life, and enjoy a full life. And above all, stop telling yourself that you don’t have a choice.