I admit it. I like being busy. Setting goals and reaching them gives me a thrilling sense of accomplishment, particularly if the goal has been challenging, like spending my weekends writing a book or trying to become a contributor to Harvard Business Review.
I will admit, though, that sometimes this busyness in service of these goals had taken me way off the rails, like when I spent days producing videos hoping to become a LinkedIn Learning instructor, which didn’t happen, or writing modules for an online course, which I had no passion for marketing. A recent article in Harvard Business Review about how busyness has become the new status symbol and the reported rise in “time poverty” got me thinking about my values and habits.
What the Research Shows
Newly published studies have found that people around the globe consider those who work harder “morally admirable.” This value shift is a noticeable change from the past. As the sociologist Jonathan Gershuny puts it, “Work, not leisure, is now the signifier of dominant social status.” Studies also indicate that the harder people work to achieve something, the more they value it. This phenomenon is known as “effort justification.” The more demanding the effort is, the more committed people feel (my downfall).
The problem is that while we go on justifying the grind, we fail to notice burnout creeping up on us. Once I realized the downsides of my busyness addiction, I vowed to make changes. If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some steps you can take.
Prioritize what gives you meaning.
Each new day is an opportunity to do what truly matters to us to live a full, meaningful life. When planning your days, you can schedule activities congruent with what matters and holds value.
- Which meaningful activities or interactions should you prioritize in the next 24 hours, and which actions should be removed or modified?
- What is the alignment between your current to-do list or daily routine and your values?
- How did you spend your last 24 hours? Your week?
Reduce the number of tasks.
To-dos represent an agreement. As soon as an agreement is in place, it creates pressure to deliver. Hold the line up front to reduce the stress from task volume, so you aren’t forced to renegotiate later.
How you hold the line depends on whether your pile of to-dos tends to grow from tasks you are assigned or from tasks that you choose to take on. For tasks assigned to you, think about priorities, not time. When a manager asks you to do something, consider asking: “How would you like me to prioritize this against x, y, and z?”
This approach reframes a collaborative discussion about what is most important. For tasks, you are considering adding on yourself, block time on your calendar for each one of your to-dos. You can see your capacity before you agree to take on more by getting a complete view of your commitments.
Use structure, not willpower, to minimize distractions.
Distractions sidetrack us from accomplishing our tasks and making our most important decisions. Distractions are a particularly corrosive contributor to feeling overwhelmed because they prevent us from feeling that we are making progress toward our goals. When it comes to distraction, structure beats willpower every time. Here are some suggestions for creating the structure to beat back distractions:
- Set aside periods during the day when you don’t check emails or your Slack channel. Use this time to focus on your most important projects.
- Create 30-minute sessions when team members can pop in to get directions instead of “grabbing you for 5 minutes.”
- Schedule 10-minute moments for reflection, eliminating back-to-back meetings.
When you find yourself sleepless with worry about how you’ll get everything done, try some of these strategies and let me know how they go!
Susan Peppercorn, a graduate of the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology, is an executive and career coach who supports mid- and senior-level professionals to find their next best career step—whether that’s a promotion, new job, career, or entrepreneurial option. A certified Positive Psychology Coach accredited by the International Coaching Federation, Susan is the creator of the workbook 25 Tips for Making a Successful Career Transition. A frequently requested speaker and an executive mentor for Healthcare Business Women’s Association, she has been tapped for expert career advice by publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, U.S. News & World Report, and Harvard Business Review. Find her on LinkedIn.