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How to be busy without feeling overwhelmed

“Busy” doesn’t really mean “productive”; here’s how to switch your focus to what really matters.

How to be busy without feeling overwhelmed
[Photo: Rawpixel]

At most moments in the day, we’re busy doing something; however, there’s a big difference between being busy and productive and just being busy. It’s easy to fall into the latter category when days are filled with never-ending tasks. Lately, though, admitting that you’re “busy” has gotten a bad rap.

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“The term ‘busy’ became a badge of honor,” says Mike Vardy, founder of the Productivityist website. “Being busy shows you’re important; you’ve got things going on. Having that status symbol is one of the reasons why people held onto it.”

But “busy” doesn’t really mean “productive,” and it can often lead to a feeling of overwhelm. Henry David Thoreau once said, “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?”

“Once you start to look at that, the term ‘busy’ loses some of its luster,” says Vardy. “Throwing around the word ‘busy,’ is like using the F word; it’s only powerful in specific situations.”


RelatedWhy You Need to Stop Bragging About How Busy You Are


The problem with “busy”

The word “busy” is defined as being “engaged in action.” The bad kind of busy is taking action without being engaged in it and doing so repeatedly, says Vardy.

“It’s spending time getting your email inbox to zero without being engaged with everything that lands there first,” he says. “It’s surfing the web without a clear objective in mind before opening the browser. It’s decluttering your space–physical and/or digital–without putting a plan in place first.

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“The right kind of busy depends on intention before attention. The wrong kind of busy attracts attention before intention.”

Busy can also be isolating. Inevitably someone will ask you what you’re doing or how you’ve been, and if your reflex answer is “busy” it can be dismissive and shut down conversations. “The person often responds with, ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to bug you,’ and backs away,” says Vardy.

Saying you’re “crazy busy” is even worse. “Not only am I busy, I’m frantically busy,” says Vardy. “I don’t think it’s meant to be a conversation stopper. It’s meant to say, ‘This is how important I am. I have this stuff.’ We all have stuff. We’re all busy.”

How to make “busy” good

Busy can be good, but you first need to answer Thoreau’s question–busy doing what?

“If you’re engaged in action, are those actions moving you forward in a way that’s truly productive?” asks Vardy. “Checking email, for example, is not a definition of being productive. What you’re doing should be an act of will.”

To get some clarity on whether you’re engaged in productive action or engaged in busywork, reframe your words. In her book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, author Laura Vanderkam writes, “Instead of saying, ‘I don’t have time,’ say, ‘It’s not a priority,’ and see how that feels.” Changing the sentence helps you be objective and determine if you’re spending time on the right things.

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Similarly, saying “I’m busy” is like saying, “I don’t have time for this.” Instead, Vardy suggests reframing the phrase to “My attention right now is on …” or “I’m busy doing these things.”

“That gives you a lot more to go with,” he says. “For example, ‘I’m busy working on my book,’ or ‘I’m focusing on building my online platform.’ Having a better phrase allows you to take that word back and make ‘busy’ matter.”


Related: Asking this one question can make you feel like you have more time


When you tell others what you’re giving your attention to, you create more of a conversation with someone who is asking for your time. “You can add, ‘I can’t talk to you right now because I’m focusing on this,’ but simply saying you’re busy has lost its power because it doesn’t have any meat behind it,” says Vardy.

Productivity is about slowing down to figure out if you’re doing the right things in first place, says Vardy. “When you find yourself feeling busy, slow down and take stock to see if those things you’re working on are things you should be tackling at all or at that moment,” he says.

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