Imagine if you could repeat 2017 – carry the same responsibilities, meet the same commitments, achieve just as much (maybe more), but feel less busy. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Plenty of doing, but no more feeling rushed or overwhelmed. No more feeling like a little mouse on a wheel, legs frantically moving but not getting anywhere. Well, I think you can. In fact, I know you can, because I’ve done it.
“You’re so much less stressed these days. I think it’s all that slow living stuff of yours,” my husband casually remarks. We’re in the kitchen, dancing around each other as we make our lunch. We’ve just finished our weekly planning meeting, and what a week. Mid-December (say no more), the last week of my part-time job, first week of a new freelance gig, work Christmas party, school picnic and my birthday. Overwhelmed? Nope. I was looking forward to it.
Roll back the clock three years and a week like this would have had me in knots. My life was a frantic mess. On the outside, I was the poster girl for work-life balance – superstar in the office for three days a week, supermum to a toddler for the rest. On the inside, I felt like I was being chased across a tight rope. Eventually, I fell off.
Following the fall, I scaled my life right back. I got myself into a pretty good place. With time, I found the courage to give things a go again. Fiercely protective of my newfound peace and calm, but equally determined to make a bigger contribution to the world, I went about adding things back into my life.
The upside of being terrified of another fall was that I paid close attention to how I felt. I soon realised feeling rushed, busy and overwhelmed wasn’t just linked to how much I was doing. My approach to what I was doing also had a real influence on how I felt.
Empowered by this realisation, over the next couple of years, I developed a set of strategies that enable me to accomplish all I want, while feeling less busy.
How to feel less busy
- Change your language
Busyness – the go-to humblebrag and only guilt-free way to wriggle out of unwanted social activities. The problem with all this talk of how busy we are is that it perpetuates the norm that if you aren’t busy, you aren’t worthy. This drives busyness for the sake of busyness. Let yourself off the hook, you don’t have to be busy, it’s not compulsory. A simple first step is to change your language. I’m on a mission to ban busy from my vocabulary and change the nature of my everyday conversations. To start feeling less busy, stop telling everyone how busy you are.
- Make a not-do list
We’re all so good at making lists of things to add to our lives, but what about things to subtract? Make a quick list of things you are not going to do and stick to it. It is as valuable as any to-list. Take a good, hard look at how you use your time and isolate things, big and small, that you can do without for the better. My own not-do list includes not watching more than one episode of Netflix per evening, not cooking meals that need more than 30 minutes of hands-on time, not dyeing my hair, not working out for more than 30 minutes a day (including travel time). My lastest addition is not hosting out of town charity events.
- Make a brain dump part of your routine
Feeling busy begets feeling busy. The more you have to do, the more you worry about dropping the ball, and the more you repeat to yourself all the things you have to do. The overwhelm escalates. A quick brain dump enables your mind to stop and re-set. Take out a piece of paper and write down all the stuff that’s whirling around in your head. Laying everything out on paper claws back some mental bandwidth, and gives you much needed perspective..
- Limit your daily to-do list to three items
While brain dumps are helpful, epic to-do lists aren’t. I’ve written many and they tend to be either a) self-gratifying lists of things I would’ve accomplished anyway that distract me from what really needs to be done, or b) unrealistic and/or overwhelming wishlists full of shoulds that reflect others’ priorities. Instead, set a timeframe for your list (daily, weekly, monthly), only include as many things as you can complete within that timeframe and list only real must-dos. A daily list of three item works well for me. For help, check out 5 steps to master your to-do list.
- Give yourself a buffer
When I think back to my pre-meltdown life, the worst part was the constant rushing. No room for error meant that one small slip (and there were lots of those) would completely derail the day with roll-on effects for the rest of the week. I was always on the backfoot. As I recovered and added things back into my life, I also added plenty of buffer – room around the edges. And not just around appointments, I also add buffer around projects, factoring in a time to get over one before I start the next.
- Do one thing at a time
Tempted to multi-task? Dividing your attention only makes you feel busier. If you must do things, at least aim to do them one at a time. Don’t give in to the temptation to quickly scrub the basin while you brush your teeth, or listen to a podcast while you unpack the dishwasher. Turn everyday drudge into breathing space, a chance for your mind to wander and your brain to restore itself. You may not be able to quit your day job and put your feet up, but you can make small changes like this to foster a sense of slow [link].
- Reduce decision fatigue
More often, it’s not the physical doing, but deciding what to do that’s most exhausting. Ask anyone who has built a house. It’s not just the big decisions, all the little everyday decisions add up. To guard against decision fatigue, look for areas in your life where you can make a blanket decision that rules out the need to decide over and over. Uniform dressing – wearing the same outfit each day, a la Mark Zuckerberg – is one example. Or try having the same thing for breakfast each day, making a meal plan with a list of dinners for the week, or deciding on a default gift for kids’ birthday party presents. I always park in the same row of parks at the supermarket.
- Quit procrastinating
Procrastination is part of being human, but chronically putting things off means you either don’t achieve much, or if you do, it’s in an unnecessary rush. Next time you’re stuck getting started, rather than vacuuming under your bed, try using a timer. Tell yourself you need only do 15 minutes of the activity you’re avoiding. Set the timer and go. Often, once started, you’ll readily do more. As a chronically messy person who hates housework, I used this method to declutter thousands of things from my home . Be mindful of the importance trap – putting off things that matter until you have the focus, energy and time to do them justice. A desire to do something properly can result in you not doing it at all. There is no perfect time, only the time you have.
What steps are you taking to feel less busy?