Back in January 2017 I took myself off to a remote hotel in the countryside for a two day retreat to reflect on my business. I set myself up with a lovely view over the mountains and started writing, thinking and reflecting. Pretty quickly I realised the heart of the issue was that I needed more time and space.
I’d been running a very successful leadership development and executive coaching business for 17 years at that stage. I really loved the work I did and knew it made a difference to people (one of my core values). But deep down I realised I was too busy – spread too thin – to do my best work. And I was noticing the first subtle signs of falling out of love with the work I had always been so passionate about.
I knew I wanted to focus on where I could have the greatest impact in my work. AND I wanted more time and energy for other important parts of my life.
The rest of the two days were then spent making this happen. I got really clear on the core parts of my business and decided to eliminate everything else – reducing my business offerings by 30%. And I made the decision to employ two people to support me in the business and help with the administrative side of the work.
My aha moment
Fast forward three months of putting this all in place and embedding the changes and … ta-da! …. I was just as busy as I’d ever been! I genuinely couldn’t believe it. How could I have removed almost a third of my business AND taken on staff to help and be just as busy as I ever was? It didn’t make sense.
Until I realised that as long as I FELT busy, I would always BE busy. No amount of change on the outside was going to change how busy I was until I changed my thinking – the voice in my head repeatedly saying “I’ve so much to do”, “I HAVE to get all this done” etc.
This was a huge aha moment in my life.
I realised that my busyness wasn’t just ‘out there’ – something external or happening to me – but was also something to do with me. My thinking. My mindset. My way of seeing the world. The story I was telling myself. Repeatedly.
This started me on a quest to figure out how to change this – for myself and for all the people I worked with whose work and lives were affected by being too busy. I started researching, exploring, reading about and finding ways to help people change their relationship with busyness. To live and work ‘Better not busier’.
Busy as a blocker
A CEO once told me she believed (from personal experience) that money doesn’t make you happy, but that there are few problems that cannot be at least helped by “Throwing some money at it”. My version of this would be that I believe there is almost no challenge, issue or change someone wants to make that cannot be helped by “Throwing some time and space at it”.
One of the biggest reasons I find people don’t make changes in their lives – even ones they really want – is that they can’t find the time or headspace. If you want to make a significant change in your work, you need time and headspace to figure this out and make it happen. If you want to improve your relationship with your team, peers, board, kids or spouse – it will take time, focus and headspace. If you want to be fitter, healthier, get better at guitar or tennis or write a book – these all need time and energy.
In fact, no matter what someone wants to change when they come to me, if they are ‘crazy busy’, we always start by creating some space in their life. Otherwise anything else we do is simply adding to their already overloaded plate and so is unlikely to get the focus needed for lasting change.
A different way
With the pandemic, many people have discovered (in some cases for the first time) that there is in fact another way. That there are huge positives to not spending so much time commuting or traveling. Or how good they feel getting out for a walk at lunchtime.
One CEO/founder, for example, who contacted me during the crisis said:
“I feel most of my time is taken up with work and I find it very hard to switch off. I go to bed thinking about work issues and wake up in the morning the same way. I bottle up any stress as I don’t want to worry my wife. I’ve neglected most friendships I’ve had over the years in order to focus on the business. I have been working from home the last two weeks and it made me realise how little I see of my kids. I’m looking for a way to balance my work / life better.”
So where do we start if we want to be less busy?
Stop saying how busy you are!
When I had my realisation that as long as I felt busy I would always be busy, I immediately did two things.
Firstly, I banned the word busy from my vocabulary. I stopped telling others how busy I was. And more importantly, I stopped telling myself that I was.
And secondly, each time I could feel myself about to start thinking about how busy I was – and there were many times! – instead I said (sometimes through gritted teeth!) “I have enough time what’s important”. I would repeat this over and over – replacing my old story with a better one.
It’s important to note that I was saying time for “what’s important” and not that I had time for everything (which is of course impossible and the road to misery).
Thriving Brain vs Surviving Brain
Why this is so powerful is because our brains function so much better when relaxed. We know from neuroscience that this is because we access different parts of the brain when calm or when we have a busy or over-active mind.
When we feel busy or stressed this activates the Surviving Brain found in the brainstem, limbic system and parts of the left brain (rather than the Thriving Brain found in the middle prefrontal cortex, “empathy circuitry” and parts of the right brain).
When the Surviving Brain is activated, our problem solving ability reduces, we find it harder to concentrate, we make more errors, we tend to get tunnel vision and we find it harder to think creatively.
When we are calm, it activates our Thriving Brain which is far more creative and resourceful.
What we focus on grows
The other reason this is so important is that our words have immense power. ‘What we focus on grows’. The more we tell ourselves how busy we are, the more that’s what we see and feel. And it’s harder to see there may be some space available to us or a way to do things differently. The more we buy into the busy story, the more it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.
So I would suggest you find your own calming and positive phrase like “One thing at a time”, “I’ll get there” or “Breathe” – whatever works for you. And every time you start to feel too busy, simply take a breath and repeat this until you feel less busy and more in control.
Changing your story
Changing how you think and talk about being busy, is the first and most important step in taking control and creating a healthier, more balanced relationship with being busy.
As Carl Honore (author of ‘In Praise of Slow’) says “In the war against the cult of speed, the front line is inside our heads”.
Is it time you took the first step?
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To find out more about how busyness impacts our performance and our lives, go to my blog ‘Time to face facts about busyness‘.