Imagine you could repeat 2018 – 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.
Roll back the clock four years and 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 and supermum at home with 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.
In 2018, I ramped things up. I tripled my working hours, throwing myself into challenging projects. While exciting, it was also terrifying – amplified by the fact I was back working at the scene of the fall, around the same people and on the same projects.
But this time, it was different. In the intervening years, I developed a set of strategies to help me feel less busy and, under pressure, they held up well. They got me through and I’m looking forward to doing it all again this year. Here are nine strategies to make you feel less busy too.
How to feel less busy
- Watch 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.
- Change your mindset
Hefty cultural narratives like “more is better” and “you only live once” stoke the fires of busyness. To feel less busy, develop strong counterweights to the constant messages that you should do more, be more and have more.
When I stepped back into a big office in the city I was determined not to let it equate with stepping back onto the hamster wheel. I steeled myself with the words, “I have plenty of time” and “one thing at a time” – words that quell my rising feelings of busyness. Find some words that work for you. Check out my mantras to break away from constant busyness for inspiration.
- Make a not-do list
We’re good at making lists of things to add to our lives, but what about things to subtract? Make a quick list of things you’re not going to do and stick to it. It’s as valuable as any to-list. Take a good, hard look at how you use your time then isolate the things, big and small, that you can do without for the better. My own not-do list includes 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). In 2018, I made the decision to not continue with a volunteer role I’d held for three years.
- Make a brain dump part of your routine
Feeling busy begets feeling busy. In the past, the more I had to do, the more I worried about dropping the ball, and the more I repeated to myself all the things I had to do. The overwhelm escalates and reinforces itself. 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 which distract me from what really needs to be done, or b) unrealistic and/or overwhelming wish-lists full of shoulds that reflect others’ priorities. Instead, set a timeframe for your list (e.g. 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 my five steps to master your to-do list .
- Build in 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) completely derailed the day and had 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 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 to foster a sense of slow.
- Reduce decision fatigue
Often, it’s the deciding, not the doing, 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. This rules out the need to decide over and over. Uniform dressing – wearing the same outfit each day, àla Steve Jobs – is one example. Or try making a meal plan with a list of dinners for the week [link], or following a cleaning plan. Even small decisions matter, 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 slow down?