Ask almost anyone how they are doing these days and they’ll take a short, quick breath, or a long sigh, before answering with the inevitable, “Busy.” It’s become the standard response for a society filled with overstimulated, highly distracted people under immense pressure. Many blame themselves for not being more organized or lacking the discipline to say “no” when they truly don’t have any spare capacity.
In my work of coaching people through positive career and leadership change (and of experiencing overwhelming busyness myself), I’m finding it helpful to get curious about looking at our individual experiences of being so busy, and teasing that apart to shed new light on our circumstances. Over time, I’ve noticed some common themes emerging, described below. Can you see yourself in any of these?
Theme #1: “It’s my fault. I’m doing this to myself.”
This is the most common theme I hear among those who are overwhelmingly busy and struggling with their capacity to complete everything (or to focus their attention for any extended period of time). We can see it as a personal failure in ourselves and either we aren’t aware or we discount the true effects of information overload resulting from increased technology access and the rising pressure to do more with less in most industries. This brings to mind the story of the frog who is put in a pot of tepid water and doesn’t realize that the water temperature is slowly rising until it’s too late. The frog gets boiled along with the water – not a pleasant thought but it makes the point.
There is no doubt in my mind, nor in those who have researched the VUCA world and its resulting PAID environment, that our environment has changed, much like it did for the poor boiled frog. (VUCA = Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous – an acronym first used by the American military in 1987, PAID = Pressured, Always-on, Information Overloaded, Distracted – Hougaard, Carter & Coutts, 2016).
We do ourselves a great disservice by taking on so much of the blame for how we feel and react in response to circumstances that have evolved largely beyond our control or desire – not only because it’s unfair and inaccurate, but because it also makes it difficult to know where to start making positive changes when we feel responsible for everything.
So if you are thinking it’s all on you, I invite you to think again. Recognize that the world has changed and is changing, and a lot of what’s contributing to your sense of overwhelming busyness really isn’t because of a character flaw in you. This perspective can take some of the pressure off right away.
Theme #2: “There’s nothing I can really do about it – I have to keep up.”
Helpless thoughts and fearfulness often accompany the conversation about “busy”. In a city like Toronto and surrounding areas (and the world in general), prices are shooting up yet everyone else around us still seems to have a nicer house, nicer cars and they take nicer vacations. And they wear nicer clothes. And they have nicer gadgets. And they seem to be signed up for the best and latest of every new activity or educational opportunity. How can we possibly slow down or say no, and risk falling behind or losing the slight edge we may have gained – especially since we’re living longer and need to be making more income than ever before?
It’s a good question. At the same time, if we’re jumping to thoughts of “slowing down” or “saying no”, we’re likely trying to solution the problem before we truly understand it. Einstein encouraged us to get clearer on the problem itself as a vital first step towards effectively addressing a significant challenge. I usually ask my clients to pinpoint their specific struggle(s) with the challenge of being overwhelmingly busy and what bothers them about it most. This tends to lead in some interesting new directions – such as fears about their unrealized potential, recognizing that they’re not on the career path they’d actually like, feeling like they’re living without purpose, realizing that they’re addicted to the short-terms rewards of accomplishment and performance, etc. Eventually we end up in the more helpful realm of “what else is possible in terms of how I can address this challenge?”
Theme #3: “I try blocking time in my schedule and prioritizing, but something always takes over.”
Here’s the thing: people are genuinely trying to address their overwhelming busyness in all sorts of constructive ways. We try out different time management tools, we re-arrange our schedules in a variety of creative ways, we make new commitments to ourselves and then they fall away the moment a work crisis happens – the boss needs something right away, you’re suddenly in danger of losing a major client or project funding, or you come back from a meeting to find that your Inbox is filled to the brim with new email, all that require immediate attention.
I feel like we all deserve a pat on the back for at least trying. However, as developmental psychologist Robert Kegan and others have taught us, no significant behaviour change is possible without understanding our own habits better as well as the mindsets that accompany them. This leads us back to themes 1 and 2, understanding what this is really about for us and what we get out of running faster and faster each day, e.g. the productivity and performance hit it gives us in the moment.
I will also add that the challenge of overwhelming busyness is not a simple one that can be easily solved with logical, problem-solving thinking. Rather, due to the nature of the multiple variables that make up this particular challenge, it’s fair to say that it’s complex. Complex challenges require creative thinking (or divergent thinking, as Dr. Danny Penman describes here; free-flowing and spontaneous thinking from which ideas emerge). As long as we continue applying logical thinking to a creative, complex challenge, we’re going to end up frustrated by our lack of real insight or imaginative solutions. Mindfulness can enhance creative, divergent thinking, as can other activities that get you “out of your head” for a moment.
In fact, mindful awareness is the one recommendation I will make for understanding your experience of busyness and becoming aware of new choices you can be taking action on as a result. Before you rush to premature action or behaviour change, take the time to explore your thoughts and feelings around your busyness so that when you do come up with a new idea for how to manage its effects, you’ll be in a better position to be successful with any changes you make.
I expect the conversation about overwhelming busyness to continue for a while yet. Many of us are still coming to terms with the changes that have led us here and trying to figure out what can help us move forward in a better way. By getting curious first, and exploring different aspects of our experience of busyness, we have a much better chance of gaining insight into ourselves and what’s possible in terms of creating positive change.