This New Year’s, resolve to be less busy and more productive

BusynessIt’s the end of another year, a time for reflection, planning and goal setting. We get out our calendars, dust off our business plans and review our accomplishments over the past 12 months. We congratulate ourselves on achievements, note where we’ve fallen short and adjust our planning accordingly. Then we boldly go forth to conquer the new year—marching forward with renewed purpose and a long list of goals and resolutions.

But before we launch a thousand ships, let’s resolve to make 2016 the year we focus less on busyness and more on business. It’s not about getting a lot of things done. It’s about getting quality things done and getting them done right.

Busyness is a hard habit to break. It bothers us not to be busy. Over the Christmas holidays, I found myself not having much to do. No work projects, no emails, nothing. How could it be so quiet? I fidgeted and thought about things I should be doing. I had a hard time focusing on the present and being still.

Busyness has been aptly described as a “dis-ease,” a disease that can be harmful to our health, our relationships, and our ability to enjoy life and be productive. It seems to have four main causes: First, it’s embedded in our culture. We’re taught at an early age to be busy and to equate busyness with diligence, ambition and success. Lack of busyness, on the other hand, is viewed as a sign of laziness or slacking off. Second, it’s reinforced by our own insecurities. If we’re not busy all the time, something must be wrong with us. We must not have an important enough job or enough get-up-and-go. Third, it’s exacerbated by a lack of planning. If we made a plan and stuck to it, we’d be focusing on the more important things in our life or business. Fourth, we don’t know how to handle downtime. It makes us uncomfortable. We feel we must constantly be doing something.

So each year, we make longer to-do lists and vow to cram more into our schedules. Then we say that we’re too busy to go to lunch, take a walk or visit with our neighbors. We develop metrics that measure things that don’t really matter; we receive emails and attend meetings that waste our time; we labor under processes and procedures that stymie innovation; we continue programs that have outlived their usefulness. We’ve doomed ourselves to perpetual busyness.

We know intuitively that this is the wrong path, that it leads to frustration, burnout and less time with family and friends. But we feel powerless to do anything about it, or we try valiantly for a few months to change, only to fall back to our old ways.

It’s particularly difficult when we work in an environment that rewards busyness—where staying late at the office is a badge of honor and praise is reserved for those who have mastered the art of always “working,” regardless of any real contribution to the organization’s bottom line or mission.

How do we change? Where do we draw the line that says, “No more busyness for the sake of busyness?”

It starts with acknowledging that busyness does not increase productivity. Writing in the Harvard Business Review (“The Remedy for Unproductive Busyness”), Francesca Gino and Bradley Staats note that we have a “bias toward action. When faced with uncertainty or a problem, particularly an ambiguous one, we prefer to do something, even if it’s counterproductive and doing nothing is the best course of action.”

“Choosing to be busy over real progress can be an easy choice; being productive, by contrast, is much more challenging,” the two business professors write. “What helps? Reminding ourselves that taking the time to reflect can help make us more productive.”

They cite a study of 354 Indian manufacturing firms where researchers with the London School of Economics identified two types of CEOs: one group engaged in advance planning while the other was less likely to plan. Surprise: the most successful CEOs were the planners, whose firms had higher productivity and profitability.

Gino and Staats also make an interesting point about soccer goalies, who tend to jump around a lot when defending penalty shots. Statistics show that if they just stood still and planted themselves at the center of the net, they’d block the shot 33.3 percent of the time. When they dive to the left, they only block the shot 14.2 percent of the time. When they dive to the right, they stop the shot just 12.6 percent of the time.

Yet, goalies stay in the center only 6.3 percent of the time. “Why? Because it looks and feels better to have missed the ball by diving (an action) in the wrong direction than to have the ignominy of watching the ball go sailing by and never to have moved,” note Gino and Staats. “By contrast, hanging back, observing and exploring a situation is often the better choice.”

The idea of doing nothing is an anathema to most of us. We truly are ill at ease when we’re idle. Just try putting away your smartphone, disconnecting from social media or skipping an appointment. And yet…

“We need to rediscover what it’s like to do nothing, to sit still, to enjoy silence,” says Leo Babauta in “how to be less busy in a busy busy world.” “We need to put more space in between things, instead of cramming them together all the time. Let’s stop being busy, and start being happy.”

So how, exactly, do we do that?

Below are some ideas Babauta gives, which I think are a pretty good start.

For those who have at least some control over their day:

Make two lists: your ideal day, and all the things that fill up your day (all your commitments). Start by eliminating commitments that are not essential, that don’t make up your ideal day…

Then start following your ideal schedule. Be sure there are spaces between things, so you’re not rushed. Leave large blocks of time wide open, so you can focus on creating or doing what makes you happy. Leave at least one big block for doing non-work stuff, whether that’s spending time with family, or exercising, or doing a hobby, or just relaxing.

Look at your to-do list and see what you can eliminate or delegate or postpone until later. Each day, just choose one or three things to focus on. Have a block of time designated for doing emails and phone calls and smaller tasks, so they don’t interrupt you throughout the day.

Disconnect from the Internet for large chunks of time…Clear away distractions and interruptions so you’re not always switching your attention between things.

Avoid meetings. Seriously. They fill up our days without being productive.

Single-task instead of multi-task. Focus on important things rather than a bunch of little things…

For those who have little control over their day:

See how much of the above you can already implement—you might get further than you think. Mapping out an ideal day, eliminating commitments, simplifying your to-do list, single-tasking, clearing away distractions and interruptions…most people can do most of these things, or if not most things then at least a few.

Tell your boss that you’d like to be more “productive” and that the interruptions and meetings are getting in the way of accomplishing more important things. Tell your boss what you’d like to accomplish, and what you’d like to change about your schedule. Work out a compromise.

Also, think about changing jobs, if you really have no control. This is a longer-term change, obviously, but it’s possible, and maybe even desirable.

In the end, whatever changes you make, you can be less busy simply by changing your mindset, to one where you live in the present rather than always thinking about other things. Slow down, breathe, enjoy every moment. Learn to focus on what’s in front of you, and find peace in whatever you do.

This is the time of year when we make New Year’s resolutions. Perhaps one cure for busyness is to simplify our plans for the new year. Better to set a few achievable goals than to commit to a multitude of unrealistic resolutions that will be abandoned by springtime.

Another antidote is to be intentional about taking time off. Sit down now with your family and plan your vacation for 2016, and then put in for that time in January. That way you really will take a vacation!

As Babauta notes, we can take back our days in small ways. Eliminating distractions, bowing out of meetings, turning off email for parts of the day and building quiet time into our schedule.

Baby steps for some of us who are addicted to busyness, but nonetheless steps in the right direction.

P.S. I’ve written previously about the importance of writing down your plans and reviewing them periodically, setting SMART goals and putting balance in your life. Perhaps some of these will also be helpful to you.

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