“It is an old ironic habit of human beings to run faster when we have lost our way.”
Paraphrazing the quote above, we run faster or attempt to do more when we are lost, overwhelmed and don’t know what to do.
Turning back, being still or letting go may be the hardest things under the sun because they require trust.
Instead of stopping what we have been doing so far, we often prefer to act even more. Taking action and handling urgent tasks leaves us with a tangible feeling that something is being done. We feel as if we are moving towards a solution.
The higher the level of busyness, the faster we seemingly move.
What if we are moving in a wrong direction?
I’ve been busy, oftentimes too busy, most of my adult life. If this busyness had been directly related to the results I would have moved mountains by my achievements. I didn’t, however. I curved shapes in a few rocks, instead.
There are two strong reasons behind it. First, I grew up believing that only hard work for long hours would produce results. I have spent countless hours working very hard. I believed these were necessary for success, even though many hours were unproductive. In fact, I could have better used them for rest to maintain balance.
Secondly, I’m a polymath i.e. a person who has too many interests to selectively focus on a few only. I want to be an expert in multiple unrelated fields, but not necessarily the top 1%. Top 5% sounds good enough 😉
Understanding. It took me years to understand the following. Hard work is essential for success. It is hard work, but not arbitrary hard work. It is hard work of a certain kind and quality, in agreement with the principle of rhythm. This means that rest, thinking time and playful creativity are as important as intensive work is.
Being busy the right way
I believe a structured busyness is healthy for us. What I mean is a daily structure in which you work on your goals, projects, products or ideas. Following your vision.
Any meaningful achievement requires dedication and effort, which is work. At the same time, any meaningful achievement consists of multiple small steps and some “a-ha moments”. Such insights only arise when there is sufficient space and stillness in which the creative process is able to unfold on its own.
Being still or playful is a necessary ingredient of the structured busyness. Knowing how to follow the rhythm of work and rest is an indispensable skill to master. It is the key to success.
The danger comes from overwork and being too busy all the time. This means an endless to-do list and flood of tasks, projects, ideas, and work to handle. Such an approach is especially draining on the mental level. Over-busyness and hard work all the time is counter-productive and often leads to permanent stress, burnout or an illness. I guess we all know that.
What lies beneath continuous busyness
I see three factors behind overwork and busyness.
The first factor is rooted in either an inaccurate self-image or/and self-esteem, or fear. The fear may be of various kind but it is usually a fear of rejection, loneliness or failure. This manifests as the inability of saying “no”, when we want to please everybody and be friends with everybody. We are afraid that people may stop liking us with all the consequences of this.
On the other hand, the same factor may manifest as having too high standards for deliverables, which is related to perfectionism and feelings of obligation. We believe we have to be spotless and expect the same from others. In both cases, the inability of saying “no” or perfectionism lead to more tasks and responsibilities than it is possible to handle.
Partial solution: Accept yourself and value yourself. Learn to simplify and say “no”. It is a laser focus that delivers results.
The second factor behind busyness is ineffective work. Busy people are usually quite efficient, but not effective. Remember that efficiency means doing things right, which is about doing particular tasks well. Effectiveness means doing the right things i.e. things that matter in the context of our job, goal, task or purpose etc.
Example. Imagine you receive 100 emails daily on average. To handle this you have perfectly optimized your inbox structure. Your inbox structure is complex to allow for all type of messages and actions to be taken. While this may be a great solution, it is hugely inefficient. Assuming that it takes you 2min per email, we arrive at more than 3h of handling emails daily – time that could have been spent better otherwise.
In this context an effective approach is to first eliminate your incoming email perhaps by developing detailed FAQs on your products or discouraging clients from contacting you unless truly necessary. The next step is to have a simple system for inboxing and automation as much as possible. This should ideally cut your emails to 20 or less per day.
Partial solution: Pay attention and become aware. Ask questions on how repetitive tasks can be simplified and automated. Look for ways to improve the given process.
The third factor behind busyness is a defence or resistance to face the challenge that matters and, oftentimes awaits us anyway.
By keeping ourselves too busy we leave no time for thinking, questions and introspection. Overwork is an excuse to postpone an important decision taking because we may not like the consequences. By buying busy we avoid a challenge ahead in a false hope that this challenge will vanish or be solved somehow. Busyness often masks for lack of trust.
Partial solution: Create trust. Gather your courage and face the truth. There is no growth if you try to escape the challenge in your face.
The partial solutions above address some important points, but they do not expand beyond busyness. The growth beyond busyness relies on deliberate practice.
We need the long hours for developing expertise, estimated by some as much as 10 000 hours (see Gladwell’s book Outliers). It is however not the hours alone that reach the conclusion. Expertise requires much more than hours. With the hours alone we are destined to mediocre at best.
What we need are the hours dedicated to pushing through and outside our comfort zone, i.e. handling challenges and tasks we don’t know yet or are not comfortable with. It becomes a deliberate practice. And there are only few who would follow this path.
Because this path requires discipline to endure pain of uncomfortable tasks or uneasy experiences beyond what is known. This is necessary to train the mental and physical muscles as well as myelin towards a development of new skills and deeper foundations.
While developing a skill you need to deliberately choose challenges of an increasing difficulty within the field or in the neighboring fields. What is however interesting is that such laser focus and uncomfortable action is needed for relatively short times, say hours a day instead of the whole days. Such days become highly disciplined in which intensive yet uncomfortable practices are structured at specific times.
Committing to such a training is a path of personal growth. See this article for more details.
Example. Let’s say you need to develop your presentation skills because you will be giving talks on conferences. You start by preparing your slides and then training your talk. In the beginning, people often write it down and memorize sentence by sentence, or train by repeating the whole talk endlessly to make it sound smooth. While this is a good strategy for newbies, when you need to handle your fear of public speaking, it is an ineffective strategy when you have already spoken a few times.
You need to practise, but rehearsing a complete talk multiple times is counterproductive. The challenge is to focus on the difficult pieces only and leave some space for the story to emerge.
The next step is to consequently increase the difficulty from an event to an event. This may be training your voice in smooth talking, only a light preparation beforehand and improvization at the spot, introducing an interesting side story, making a joke that fits, becoming interactive with the audience, and so on.
Strengthening your myelin
In the book the Talent code, Coyle develops further the ideas presented by Gladwell. The book gives arguments why talents are merely grown through a hard work and practice. Coyle points out to the role and workings of myelin.
If we see a human movement or thought as an electrical impulse travelling through a circuit of neurons, then myelin is the insulation which wraps around these fibres and increases their signal strength. Coyle says “The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become”.
In short, the book postulates three necessary ingredients behind any talent or expertise. First, you start with a burning desire to become great at something. Secondly, you follow great mentoring or find good teachers. Finally, you need a”deep practice”, a deep focus of doing the thing you are working on and constantly improving it. The goal of the practice is to strengthen the myelin strand coatings in the brain in order to strengthen brain connections made during practice.
The conclusion of the book is that passion and persistence are the key ingredients of talent and success. Why? “Because wrapping myelin around a big circuit requires immense energy and time. If you don’t love it, you’ll never work hard enough to be great.”
Pareto principle and Parkinson’s law
Now we know that practice is necessary for success. Such a deliberate practice relies on tools, techniques and systems. In my opinion, it has to incorporate two rules, one by Pareto and the other by Parkinson.
Pareto rule (80/20): 80% of the results are achieved through the 20% of effort.
Of course the proportion is approximate, but it gives you an idea. This rule reminds us that the majority of time is spent on the details while the essential things (80%) can be achieved with minor focus. This principle challenges us to produce results instead of producing them perfectly.
Example. You can easily observe this in real life. E.g. you can easily create the whole article in the 20% of the total time , the remaining 80% is spent on getting all the details right, rewriting, editing, grammar checks and formatting. These are often endless repetitions.
Parkinson’s law: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
If you have only one task to be done in a day, say, writing and posting a letter, it can easily take the whole day. As a result if you reduce the time given for the completion of the practice, you will force yourself to use the time well.
Applying the two rules. The challenge is to give ourselves limits and deadlines and stick to them so that we are forced to cut unessential, eliminate distractions and arrive at innovative solutions to meet the time constraints.
What’s the point of this article?
Except for the obvious side effects, overwork and/or busyness kill creativity. Creativity unfolds in undisturbed time and space, when mind becomes explorative and playful.
Introduce a structured approach to your busyness which incorporates silence and empty space. Limit the time for the tasks and you will become more resourceful. You will be able to focus on the essential things and master them to perfection.
You need this step. For breath. For being. For your own presence and joy.
The coaching questions about busyness
If you want a change, start by becoming aware. Explore the questions below and learn more about yourself.
- What do you avoid facing by keeping yourself permanently busy? What is the challenge beneath that you need to face?
Perhaps you need to communicate to your family or supervisors that your plate is too full.
Perhaps you need to organize a helping hand or a system to simplify the tasks.
Perhaps you are not happy at your job and need to choose a new direction of your growth.
Perhaps your marriage is at risk and you need to learn new ways of communication.
Change is inevitable and the only way to go through a change is to manage change.
- What do you loose when you are so busy?
It is important to realize what your price is. Do you have time for rest, thinking, exercise, reading books and learning new things?
- What would you be doing if you were not that busy?
Perhaps the key point is here. Work is an important aspect of our lives. It nourishes when we can express ourselves and become creators, be it on the level of product development, programming, team management or organization structures. However, sometimes works takes everything there is in life. And then you begin to dread your free hours as you simply don’t know what to do.
Maybe it is the time to go out, find new hobbies, start volunteering or seeing others.
- How can you become less busy and more successful?
The combined Pareto rule and Parkinson’s law are helpful here.
Alternatively, you can ask the questions below exploring your towards and away motivation as well as hidden aspects.
- What would happen if I continued to stay permanently busy?
- What wouldn’t happen if I continued to stay permanently busy?
- What would happen if I stopped being busy?
- What wouldn’t happen if I stopped being busy?
The image above shows a beautiful quilt by Inge Duin. See more of her works on www.ingeduin.nl.