How to stop being so busy

Busy people are not successful people.

We mistake being busy with being productive. We get hit after hit of dopamine, the so-called “Happy Hormone” as we check off items on the to-do list, or smash out emails, all the while boasting on Twitter that we are “Just so busy”. It feels good, and it can become addictive.

Many companies reinforce our behavior by creating a heavy meeting culture or constantly hitting employees with short-term deadlines that they have to scramble to meet. Of course there are times in life when we really do need to be busy; the day before a deadline, or when we’re planning a big event we might need us to push our sleeves and get things done.

The problem comes when we get stuck in the “busy mode” either through our own choice or because of someone else’s. Over time we lose the ability to even see that we’re permanently reactive with little ability to control our own workload or direction. For many of us, going home tired at the end of the day makes us feel satisfied. We equate tiredness to productivity, and come to think that we should always feel this tired as proof that we’re doing our job.

But being busy is a choice.

When we spend all our time being reactive and busy we lose sight of the long term. Even with the best intentions, you won’t find time to be strategic if you’re always fighting against the tide of being busy. Not being strategic means we’re not planning our choices and miss the chance to prevent reactive situations from occurring.

Maybe as managers we’re too busy to see or deal with someone who’s unhappy in their role. When they quit we’re forced into a reactive situation. As an engineer we can get stuck shoring up a crumbling architecture, desperately fixing bugs to keep things working. But at the same time we’re missing the chance to stop and design a system that scales, or is secure, and maintainable. Anyone seeking a promotion needs to find time to stop, look around, and work out what the strategic work really looks like. Otherwise you’ll be stuck where you are, all the time wondering why your manager isn’t rewarding you for fixing 5 million bugs or running 200 meetings.

When we get stuck in the permanent busy mode we need to work twice as hard just to stay where we are. All the while we miss the opportunity to make the right choices to help ourselves or our teams move forwards.

Strategic thinking is the only way to progress.

To create time for strategic thinking we need to do less stuff; either we need to delegate things or we need to reject things.

An Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to separate tasks into the Important, and the Urgent. Anything urgent but not important can be delegated, anything not urgent and not important can be rejected.

Everything else is either done now or scheduled in. Make sure you include self-care in this group. Self-care is often de-prioritised by busy people but neglecting yourself severely hinders your ability to stay healthy and sharp.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to see when too firmly stuck in Tactical or Strategic mode. If all your tasks sit in one part of the matrix then you can clearly see that you place too much emphasis on tasks of this type.


For anyone in a senior or leadership position having tasks in your Urgent, Not Important quadrant is a strong indicator that you’re not delegating enough. When you fail to delegate you fail to give other people opportunities. Correct this as soon as you can.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, and more importantly, what you’re not, you need to tell people. Make your priorities or calendar visible to the people around you and fiercely defend it so they know you’re serious. If they disagree with your priorities ask them to help you decide what gets de-prioritised to make space for their task. Be clear about the trade-offs.

If you have strategic work time scheduled in make sure you protect it at all costs. Lara Hogan has some brilliant advice on how to set up your calendar to be most effective for you. When you know the times of day that you’re most effective you can use them for the most important tasks. It seems obvious but many of us try to squeeze in important work when we have the time rather than carving out time for it. It should go without saying that important work is important. Give it the respect it deserves.

Finally, learn to say no. It doesn’t need to difficult, simply thank someone for thinking of you and politely decline.  You can’t do everything and you won’t be able to meet everyone’s expectations but that’s ok. Take control of your life and spend your time in a way that gets you to your goals.

Three easy ways to maintain momentum

A lot of work involves other people, and more specifically depends on other people doing something. Decision-making with a group of people can be frustrating, it takes time and you can end up feeling like everything would be much easier if you were doing this alone. However teams don’t work that way and successful changes generally only come about when everyone involved feels like they contributed to the decision.

Maintaining momentum is one of the easiest ways to keep people engaged in the process. Context switching is hard; it takes time, and it takes energy. You can help people to stay engaged in your project by avoiding the long delays between context switching. It is much easier to compete a task with a small amount of work, often, rather than a large chunk of work, followed by a slump, and then another large chunk of work. Even without the challenges of scheduling in large chunks of work the later approach is painful because of the energy needed to re-start on the task after the gap.

That doesn’t mean hassling them (too much!), but instead focus your efforts on keeping things moving at a steady pace so that the rest of the group doesn’t need to expend a huge amount of energy to re-engage with the project.

Here are three easy ways to keep things moving:

1) Share documents with the correct sharing settings
How many times have you turned to a task only to discover that the document you’re meant to be editing or commenting on has been shared with ‘view only’ settings? Now think about how long it took you to get the correct settings, if you ever did, and the impact the delay had on your responsiveness. I’d bet that not having the correct settings on the document meant you left it until later to complete, maybe you never got around to completing it.

2) Respond to questions quickly
When you’re working with others on a task it’s normal to expect some clarifying questions. They might be wondering if they have the right document, or double-checking they understand what you need them to do. Delaying your response is a sure way to kill their engagement.

Recently I was working on a group presentation and asked a quick clarifying question to the organiser. It took two days to get a response. Two days. In those two days I’d become involved in another, better defined task. I eventually returned to the presentation but not until another day later. The delay in getting my clarifying answer ended up being the time to get an answer plus some additional time due to a perceived lack of interest from the organiser. Respond quickly. Show that you care about the task.

3) Be clear about what you’re expecting people to do
Ever had a document shared with you without comment? Did you do anything with it? Even the most dedicated team player will struggle with uncertainty. If you need someone to do something then ask them. If you’ve asked them face to face and are sharing the document at a later date drop in a note to clarify that this is the document you were asking them to complete. Don’t assume that the other person understands or remembers everything you’ve said.

What tips do you have for maintaining momentum in your teams?