Symptoms may sound familiar: a racing heart, poor sleep, a calendar populated by a wall of events, headaches from teeth grinding, stomach pain, a to-do list that hasn’t shrank noticeably by day’s end. If you find yourself rushing through or multitasking during what could be enjoyable experiences (e.g., exercising, cooking, spending quality time with family and friends), you’re also in the club. As the title announces, this post is about being too busy. The symptoms noted above came from my life and from Facebook friends who kindly shared their experiences. Many of these are chronic stress symptoms that we need to take seriously. So what can we do to get out from under the cloud of “busy-ness?”
[This Kevin Kline song from “Philadelphia Chickens” courses through my brain when I’m overwhelmed.]
Many New Year’s resolutions are about re-prioritizing one’s time. This post offers some strategies for accomplishing that re-prioritization in a meaningful way. I don’t suggest adding all of these strategies to your repertoire. (You may even be gratified to see your existing strategies on this list.) Instead, I recommend trying out a new one or two strategies that speak to you and your life.
A month ago, I briefly researched answers to the following questions: How do you recognize when you’re too busy? How do you prevent yourself from becoming too busy? My search terms generally yielded advice about how to be more productive. Or admonishments not to bragplain (brag/complain) about being too busy. An exception to my research failure is this one article that offers some thoughtful signs that you’re too busy.
I don’t begrudge anyone’s journey to be more productive. Several of my previous blog posts focus on productivity. I certainly care about getting things done efficiently and having a finished product for one’s efforts. But there’s a boundary beyond which you’ve taken on too much and have thereby sucked enjoyment out of activities that should feel fulfilling. I’m trying to find that boundary. It’s certainly individualized, but we can learn from one another as we seek to allocate our time in fulfilling ways.
Below are some strategies that I’ve thought of, read about, or learned from others about avoiding the trap of “too busy.”
Finding Busy-ness Causes and Patterns: A Time Log
One simple diagnostic/prevention strategy I started in September is to keep a brief time log throughout the year to identify patterns in my stress levels. I have a google sheet with the following categories: task, time spent, time of year, efficiency notes, feelings. I’m recording how long it takes me to grade certain class projects, to review essays, to make jam, to clean the bathrooms. Put the work, leisure, household, and family stuff in there.
The efficiency column helps me remember how to be faster at things I don’t want to savor (like grading). The feelings part reminds me if I felt rushed, stressed, joyful, fulfilled. If I was having a very negative experience, I need to 1) not do it, 2) make it more efficient, or 3) build in more time to do it in the future (by getting rid of something else). Because of the time log, I now know that I need to under-schedule weekends in November. There’s a lot of garden work, advising, grading, and conferencing/conference preparation to do. My schedule opens up in December for more socializing and other projects then.
The one caution with this time log tool (and all of these strategies) is that they shouldn’t add to your stress level. I’ve probably spent 10 total minutes on the time log. It’s been useful and low-commitment so far.
Clear the Calendar
Even if you haven’t identified a “busy period” in your year, consider blocking off down time in your calendar on a weekly or semi-weekly basis. I think of this as akin to the savings advice of ‘pay yourself first.’ Block off time for you. Make yourself a priority. This tip came from two school teacher friends. One puts “Introvert Days” into her calendar; the other thinks of these time periods as “Room for Error” days (just in case she has to take care of unexpected things). For both, this time is completely self-determined. These days can be used for self-care, for entertainment, for chores, or anything else. Even if you don’t have a full day to yourself, find a smaller chunk of time to keep free. I like this reminder to slow down, protect your time, and allow yourself to be in the moment.
The Gift of Time vs. Gifts that Take Time
Some of my recent purchases include canning equipment, fabric to make things for my kids, and yarn to, again, make things for my kids. My disposable income has been going toward things that make more work for me. It’s often fun work, but I’ve only considered my money budget and not my time budget when making those purchases. I’m making an effort to slow down on the DIY stuff (pay no attention to the information below about getting chickens), and think more about buying time. A 2017 study found that spending money on time-saving services led to more positive emotion than buying “stuff.” We hire a plow service each winter, and I consider that money well spent. Maybe it’s time to re-examine the budget and think about other time-saving services.
Five Second Rule
The five second rule came from a friend who adopted the principle of waiting five seconds before committing to anything. That short time for reflection can mean the difference between a poor, impulsive choice and a healthy, thoughtful choice. I’ve tried to remember this when quickly responding to email. The joy of getting an email off my plate is not worth a long commitment to an unnecessary meeting or service position that doesn’t suit me.
The Meat Loaf Strategy
Meat Loaf famously sang, “I would do anything for love, but I won’t do that.” In the last few months, I’ve tried to think carefully about what I’m willing to do when I take on a new task and what boundaries I need to draw in that new task. For example, I’ve been working with a committee to explore installing fruiting plants and a garden at my campus. I am willing to do the work to identify the space, order the materials, and collaborate on the install, but I draw the line at fundraising. Someone suggested we have local businesses sponsor fruit trees. I don’t consider that to be the best use of my expertise and time, so I kindly explained that I was not willing to do that. You have to be willing to clearly define your boundaries and potentially walk away from something if it balloons beyond your expectations into something you don’t want to do or might resent.
The Keystone: Mission and Focus
A major theme that emerged when I asked friends about their busy-ness prevention strategies is to write out a mission or priorities list–and only do things that align with the mission or priorities. This is the same strategy that organizations use to make sure smaller efforts are dovetailing with a greater vision or purpose.
I like this idea, but I get stuck putting it into practice. I want to do a lot of things, and I want to do them well. But it’s possible to have an “overgrowth” mindset. We can’t be good at all things, all the time. I almost need to have a prescribed limit or number of things I can focus on at once. So here’s what I’ve decided to do to implement this mission and focus idea:
First, I wrote out my priorities list. It has four things: family, health (personal, family, and community), promotion at work, and learning new things. These categories are perhaps too broad. I could finagle nearly anything I wanted to do into some category.
Therefore, my second strategy is to give more weight to things that meet multiple priorities. For example, I planned to expand my maple syrup production this year by getting additional taps (part of my ‘learning new things’ pursuit last winter). I also asked for a chicken coop this Christmas. My kids can help with and enjoy the chickens, but they can’t really do much with the maple syrup production at their ages. Plus, eggs are a great source of protein and syrup is just an Elf food group. I’ll focus on chickens and not syrup this year because chickens hit priorities 1, 2, and 4.
Third, I’m aiming to do only one “passion project” at a time and put everything else on a “maintain” schedule. The chickens are new to me. I don’t know how much time they’ll take, so I need to keep my schedule light in March when they arrive. I also wanted to train for my first triathlon this spring, but I think that’s too much. I’ll maintain my regular exercise routine through the spring and gear up for a late summer triathlon when I have more time (and when I can swim in a pond, which I enjoy much more than a chlorinated pool).
I hope that reading this blog post was a good use of your time. Thank you to all of the friends and family whose experiences and ideas helped me refine the strategies presented here. Best of luck as you ponder New Year’s resolutions and ways to take back your time!