How to Break Out of the Busyness Paradox (Because We All Can Get Stuck)
May 14, 2019
Ever felt the overwhelming pressure to do a million things in a day—but then, after eight hours when you're tired and winding down, realized you didn't do much of anything at all?
Welcome to the busyness paradox.
This little monster of a problem seems to visit a lot of people—or, at least those who bounce around from one thing to the next.
The hallmark of the busyness paradox is "tunneling." As Brigid Schulte explains in the Harvard Business Review, "When we’re busy and have that high-octane, panicked feeling that time is scarce…our attention and ability to focus narrows. Behavioral researchers call this phenomenon 'tunneling.'"
We become obsessed with doing apparently critical but usually low-value tasks (Delete those emails! Empty dishwasher! Fix that button on that sweater!) to give ourselves the sense that we're accomplishing lots of important stuff! But then, we accidentally avoid the most important work of the day. We're in a tunnel, unable to spot what's happening around us.
And when we’re really busy, we’re more likely to start “tunneling.” I can't tell you the number of times I have been staring down a deadline and, too frazzled to start anything at all, simply belly-flopped on my bed to escape down an Instagram wormhole. That's a tunnel, too.
So how can you become less busy, more focused, and stop tunneling? It's totally possible. Here's how.
Plan Your Day in Advance
Nothing strikes fear in my heart like sitting down on a Monday and saying to myself, "Uhh, so what am I doing today?" Because the day speeds up, the emails roll in, and poof—I'm sucked into the tunnel.
Try taking two minutes every day—either before your work or school day starts or ends, or right before bed—to think "What is the most important (and therefore first) thing I have to do?"
When you start your hustle with that question already answered, you kick things off two steps ahead of the game.
Group Your Low-Value Tasks Together
I would define a low-value task as something that you want to do or need to do, but doesn't necessarily contribute to your most important priorities of the day.
It’s typically a simpler task, making it more appealing than your most important tasks of the day—those suckers are daunting.
You don't have to eliminate all of your low-value tasks, though. You simply have to find a place to put them.
Here's one example: As a chronic researcher, I always have things I want to look up. It sounds like it'll take two minutes, but in reality, once I Google the name of some writer, I'll go through their Wikipedia, then read some articles, maybe start to watch a movie they wrote. An hour passes. I'm a goner.
Now, instead of letting these tiny brain flashes interrupt my day, I note down whatever I want to look up in my to-do list. Then, when I actually do have a spare moment after I've finished my important work, I'll Google away until my heart is happy—without feeling guilty for not doing "real work."
Plan Non-Busy Time
One of my friends—let's call him Frank—has a very packed schedule. Between graduate school, enrollment in a competitive (and time-consuming) workshop, and maintaining a bustling social life, his Google Calendar looks like a never-ending rainbow of commitments.
And yet, he has a trick: Once, when I asked if he was available to work on an assignment on a Saturday, he said he would love to, but "Saturday is my rest day." That means no work of any kind. Sure, he might have to run errands and take care of "life stuff," but unplugging from work for 24 hours allows him to tackle the rest of his week with enthusiasm and focus.
Can you pick a weekend day—or, even just a weekend afternoon—to simply not be busy?
That way, you can give yourself a chance to break out of the busy tunnel and reset. It feels very different to wake up saying This is my rest day! than I don't have any plans, so I guess I'll sneak one quick peek at email.
Have Regular Check-Ins With Your Brain
Confession time: I honestly didn't know how long anything takes. I don't just mean work-wise—I mean, if I have an hour between work and dinner plans, I'm optimistic that I can run to Target, go home, change outfits, take out the trash, answer an important email, and be back for appetizers at 8 p.m. Uh, no.
That's why it's necessary to get real about your time.
Do you know exactly how long your commute takes? Or your weekly meeting? Or your lunch break? Or whatever main, meaty task you want to get done during the workday? If you don't know, you can't plan—and if you can't plan, you're more likely to fall into the tunnel.
Try to clock how long the big things take you, and build in time for those tasks into each day. Two hours of meetings every day? That's OK! Block those off, and build intentionally around them with your other high-value tasks.
Because having a lot of things you want to do? Great. But making the time to actually do the most important things? Priceless.
Read next from our friends at Girlboss: How To Reset Your Career In 48 Hours