It’s become normal in our society to complain to friends, family and strangers that we are so busy with work, school, friends, family or a combination of everything. Tim Peek called “busyness” the “socially acceptable addiction” in his article on the cult of busyness for the Huffington Post. To many, being busy signifies that you are important and valuable.
However, the exact opposite is usually true: wouldn’t a less “busy” person who had the same workload be better at prioritizing, delegating and completing projects? For example, if Jack worked 60 hours a week on five projects and Jill worked 30 hours on five projects, wouldn’t you think Jill is better at her job, all other things being relatively equal? Yet why are we punished or seen as lazy if we leave the office early?
While attitudes toward work hours still have a long way to go when it comes to any sort of change, there are concrete strategies you can employ if you want to escape “the cult of busyness” and really get out of feeling overworked and overwhelmed. Below are some of the strategies for better work and life schedules, routines and tasks that make things easier and more streamlined.
The Truth About Busyness
The first big step is recognizing that we really aren’t that busy. We say we are working 60 hours a week, but author Laura Vanderkam has found in research for her books (including the excellent 168 Hours) that many people overestimate their actual time worked.
Others who have studied time logs of American workers have found the same: the New York Times reports that Americans tend to overestimate time worked by about 5-10 percent. Additionally, the greater the number of hours, the larger the exaggeration. So, if someone is saying they worked 75 hours last week, it was likely closer to 50.
By recognizing that you need to stop using hours worked as a badge of honor, it’s possible to start getting down to implementing strategies that could move the needle and make you feel like you have a handle on all your responsibilities.
Decide on Your Priorities and Goals
We often take on tasks that should be delegated to someone else, but we do them anyway because we think it’s easier to just do it ourselves. That couldn’t be further from the truth. If we think of work according to the Pareto Principle, where 80 percent of our income is from 20 percent of the work we do, it makes sense to prioritize and focus on that 20 percent instead of the remaining majority that doesn’t make as much income.
Make a list of all the clients, tasks or projects that you currently handle and how many hours per week they take. Be realistic. This includes small tasks, like email and project management. From there, prioritize it by revenue received or importance to the company. You’ll quickly see where your attention should lie. Begin to focus on the top 20-30 percent that is more important to your job or business. After these “frogs” are done, you can use your remaining hours to finish other tasks.
You can also evaluate the task list you made for things that could be delegated to a virtual assistant (VA) or another employee. For instance, if you see that email is taking up hours per week, would it be possible to have a VA or in-office assistant handle your inbox and only alert you to emails that need your personal attention?
Your main priorities should also coincide with your job or business goals. For instance, if you are the director of marketing and your annual goal was to increase profits 10 percent, your work should focus on projects that can increase revenue. The ones that aren’t can be placed on a lower priority list.
Build Better Daily Habits
Accomplishing goals and refocusing on top priorities comes down to what you are doing day-to-day. If you want to stop working past 6 pm every night, so you can eat dinner with your family, don’t roll into the office at 10 am. You’re going to have to make some changes in either your schedule or workload to leave on time.
Related: A Quick Guide to Time Blocking
Laura Vanderkam always recommends tracking your days for a week to see where your time is going. She offers a free PDF on her website, but an Excel file would work as well. After you’ve tracked a week of your time, you can see where you’re spending too much time, where you aren’t spending enough and the changes you can make to create a schedule that frees up your time yet still allows you to get more done.
It’s also a unique opportunity to think of ways you can “layer” actions together. For instance, if you want to read more, consider checking out audiobooks from the library and listening to them on your commute. Or, if you want to exercise regularly, try walking meetings with coworkers or walk with your family every evening after dinner. This combines relationship building with being more active but is using less time than if they were done separately.
Work on Big Projects First
It’s a silly book title, but Brian Tracy’s Eat That Frog is one of the best approaches to actually getting things done in far less time. His analogy is that if you “eat your frog,” or hardest project, first thing in the morning, then the rest of the day will be easier.
There are also benefits to just getting your more important (and probably most dreaded) task out of the way first. According to author and professor Cal Newport, once you are used to tackling hard projects first, it’s easier for your brain to get into a flow state. This state is best described as a time when you were working on something and lost track of all time and other obligations.
Maybe you were fixing up your old vintage Corvette and suddenly it was three hours later. Or you were researching a topic that fascinates you and didn’t realize you missed lunch. By recognizing when these states occur, you can get better at getting to them more quickly. Newport’s book Deep Work covers this in detail.
Reevaluate Every Quarter
As you move toward a new set of priorities and better daily habits, it’s important not to get too comfortable and slip back into old habits. Set a calendar reminder to re-evaluate your current work process and daily schedule on the first workday of every quarter so you can look at your progress and accomplishments through fresh eyes. Reserve a conference room or set up shop in a cafe, and treat this evaluation time as an unbreakable commitment.
The more time you spend managing your time, the more often you’ll find that you actually end up working less but accomplishing more. The less important “busy work” tends to fill up the most time, so make sure it gets the remainder of your time (after your important projects), instead of the majority.
As mentioned earlier, a shift in attitude is important as well. Instead of buying into the water cooler conversations about how busy and stressed you are, consider focusing on what you’ve recently accomplished or upcoming plans with friends and family. By considering each day as a new opportunity to change and move forward, you can change your perspective and move toward a better work/life balance.
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