Too busy? Maybe it’s busyness

Being busy isn’t so much a problem as it is part of life. Being busy can’t disappear, because there is always more to be done: more emails, more meetings, more laundry or dishes, more bills. It never ends.  So if that’s the problem, then there is no solution. But being being busy is not the same as busyness.

Busyness is the problem. You’re seeing your role in life is a firefighter, responsible 24/7 for extinguishing all the small fires in your area, and you have nothing left to deal with the big ones that are truly life-threatening. Everything has become an urgency. You believe you are saving the day and keeping everyone safe and alive, with each fire a potential catastrophe and impossible loss to be averted and controlled. But is this true?

In life, a firefighter approach is exhausting and not particularly effective: whether it’s forgetting your lunch, checking emails or a nuclear holocaust, it’s all on the same level. It’s all churning around in your head, and there is no clear prioritizing or triage. And that is the problem with busyness: you lose track of what’s truly important, of what really matters, as you try to do everything. It’s an impossible task. It’s exhausting.

Sometimes, we forget that we can’t bypass life truths. Not only is being a firefighter in life or at work impossible, it’s counter-productive. It’s unsustainable, and it’s poor leadership. A responsible person makes good decisions by distinguishing what truly matters from what doesn’t, and prioritizing what matters most. In basic-101 life truths, this means that you matter more than your to-do list, because if you aren’t around, your to-do list won’t get done. Your priorities this week need to reflect that you too matter. And sometimes, we forget that we can’t bypass truths. You need to stop looking at life like a firefighter giving your all, and start looking at it from a fire marshall perspective: prioritize, protect, prevent, plan and place.

So what can you do to control busyness? Prioritize, protect, prevent, plan and place. Wishing and hoping for less fires in your life? You’ll have to take a close look at priorities, demands, expectations and urgencies.  The first step: acknowledge that if you want different, you’ll have to think different and do different – unless you change perspective (from a firefighter role to being fire marshall) and do something different (thinking about change is never enough), nothing will change.  Next year will be a repeat of this year. You’ll be just as busy with busyness, and getting more exhausted, wishing for less fires and more time.

If you want to stop being a firefighter, and start being a fire marshall in your life, you need to make new choices. The best way to start is to try a few suggestions from the list below, and integrate them systematically this week – instead of wishing and waiting for life to slow down (it won’t).

Clean up the small brush so it doesn’t catch fire

Compare your priorities with your schedule this week. Identify the big pieces, declutter what’s less important, what doesn’t belong to you, and what’s is wishful thinking (such as trying to fit a 10-hour workday into 7.5 hours)

  1. Say no to a meeting invite
  2. Remove one lesser meeting from your schedule
  3. Take yourself off the c.c. list for one meeting and one email

Keep clear zones to prevent brush fires

  1. Clear 30 minutes in your workday to prioritize, plan, place and prevent
  2. Declutter one hour from your schedule this week; reassign it to work on a project you’ve been postponing
  3. Don’t take on what’s not yours to deal with: your own fires are enough

Protect your firefighters so they’re ready to deal with big fires

  1. Declutter demands: What matters most?  What’s not important?
  2. Triage out: not everything is a priority; and not everything is “urgent”.
  3. Spread out demands and responsibilities more evenly – and this includes yours too
  4. Stop delegating more to your strongest firefighters: they’re your most important asset, and the most at risk for burn out

Identify high-risk areas

  1. What’s the next big priority for next month?
  2. What do you tend to forget or minimize?
  3. What do you always postpone, hoping it’ll disappear?
  4. What’s recurrent and that you tend to minimize (budget, performance reviews, taxes, school year)?

Don’t burn yourself out

  1. Take your full lunch break to rest/refuel: this is a No Work zone
  2. Contain work to work hours: stop believing you’ll finally get on top of your list (life is not that way)
  3. Close shop: leave space for you to rest and keep energy and drive for your own life
  4. Give responsibility to who it belongs: whether it’s your colleague, your boss or your teenager. Don’t make their to-do list yours.

The point is to work on lessening the possibility of having too many fires to deal with, and burn out. Start thinking proactively about what really matters and what doesn’t.  Stop believing that your job is to be on 24/7.  Fighting all the fires all the time doesn’t make you more accomplished, a better leader or a more responsible parent, it makes you burn out.

Remember, you’re a fire marshall, not a firefighter.


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