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Overcoming our sense of busyness

‘How’s work?’

‘Yeah, busy…’

An interaction you’ve likely had a thousand times over. A response almost by rote, but is it true?

Research conducted in October 2022 of 1,027 Australians, found that more than half of those surveyed felt like they don’t have enough time in general, and that they “lack time to do anything for themselves”. Yet, many studies suggest we are potentially working less hours than in the past, so what is contributing to this sense of busy? Oliver Burkeman of the BBC believes “The answer is simple economics. As economies grow, and the incomes of the better-off have risen over time, time has literally become more valuable: any given hour is worth more, so we experience more pressure to squeeze in more work.”

A feeling of busy is also largely compounded by:

The modern environment of work – A growing number of careers in what management consultant Peter Drucker defines as “knowledge work” means we are so often connected to and inundated with work related tasks. A notion embodied by meetings and emails. According to McKinsey analysis, the average professional spends 28% of the workday reading and answering emails. Whilst best-guess estimates suggest up to 80 million meetings are taking place every day in the United States, a figure exacerbated by the 2020 COVID lockdowns and rise in remote work. There is inescapably more and more we must navigate, leading to feelings of exhaustion.

The fluidness of work and leisure – Another symptom of ‘feeling the busyness’, heightened by the global pandemic, our work and personal lives have never been more intertwined. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic further explains:

“The idea that work begins and ends at the office is intuitively wrong. We laugh at animal pictures on our work computers, and we answer emails on our couches in front of the TV. On the one hand, flexibility is nice. On the other, blending work and leisure creates an always-on expectation that makes it hard for white-collar workers to escape the shadow of work responsibilities”

Busyness being a signifier of status – Explored briefly in last month’s article, a hustle culture and rise and grind mindset has become ingrained within modern society. A study from 2016 concluded that “’busyness’ is replacing conspicuous consumption as a public marker for our worth”. Further suggesting that “talking about a scarcity of time is a more nuanced way to display importance… It’s implicitly telling you that ‘I am very important, and my human capital is sought after, which is why I’m so busy.’”

The escapism of work – Work can also be a medium in which we focus to compensate for other areas in life. Where work problems regularly follow a set process to solution, operating within a distinct feedback loop, personal problems can often “seem more intractable and difficult to tackle”, further perpetuating the cycle of busy.

Encapsulating much of the discussion around busyness and the subsequent impact on our effectiveness, Dorie Clark explores:

“There was a study done a while back, by the Management Research Group, of 10,000 senior leaders. And they asked them, “What is key to your organisation’s success?” And 97 percent said long-term strategic thinking. I mean, when was the last time that 97 percent of people agreed on anything? There is near unanimity that being a long-term thinker — having perspective, having the ability to think and ask big questions — is essential to our success. And yet in a separate study, 96 percent of leaders were surveyed, and they said they don’t have time for strategic thinking”

So how do we overcome this sense of busy, and make time for the bits that matters?

It’s no simple feat, but there’s some methods that might help:

Implement boundary setting – A clear and regimented work / rest schedule is proven to be effective in improving creative and strategic outputs. By defining the parameters for where and when we work and sticking to them, job related tasks are less likely to creep into time meant for rest, reducing some sense of busy.

“We need to recognise that real freedom is about creating the space so that we can breathe, the space so that we can think”

Learn to say no – It is common to want to overextend at work, saying yes to all and every task asked of you, even those outside your remit (a recent survey of 1,000 people from the United States, found that 49% were self-confessed people-pleasers). But this can be harmful. Learning to say no and focusing on your “core contributions” means not overwhelming yourself with secondary assignments or ‘odd-jobs’ that eat away at your primary duties, no matter how minor they might feel.

Self-reflection – It might also be beneficial to stock take external and internal factors in your own life that are making you feel busy. Are they real or perceived? Is there opportunity to change your behaviour or how you view your time? What is it that really matters to you?

There are countless psychological and cultural factors which form our concept of busy. By understanding the elements which frame this ideation, we might start to implement changes that work to ease our mental load, allowing us to make more time for the important stuff.

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