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You're Too Busy. Here's What You Can Do About It

tdmoor profile image Thomas De Moor Originally published at x-team.com on ・4 min read

A continuous stream of Jira issues, hard-to-hit project deadlines, new JavaScript frameworks, blog posts, dozens of Slack DMs, meetings, Trello tasks, emails. Software developers can be so busy they only need to blink their eyes for more work.

On the one hand, it's good to be busy. In fact, people naturally gravitate to being busy. There's even a scientific term for it: idleness aversion. Busier people tend to be happier than people who are idle, because we dread being idle.

On the other hand, you can be so busy you forget to enjoy life. In today's world, we've linked being busy with being productive, but the link between both is tenuous at best. We all know people who are always busy, but never quite productive.

But it gets worse. Being busy can easily turn into a defense mechanism. You're so busy you don't ask yourself if you're doing the right things, if you're going in the right direction, if you're doing the things you really want to do in life. Productivity expert Tiago Forte recently summarized this nicely:

You won't become great at something if your mind is continuously preoccupied with many different things. Here's how you know you're too busy:

  • You get little sleep and work until late at night.
  • You can't remember the last time you took a day off.
  • You see meals as a waste of time and wolf down your food.
  • You expect other people to be as busy as you.
  • You expect to be rewarded for your efforts, not the results.
  • You race from commitment to commitment.
  • You barely get any exercise in.

If you hit too many of these signs, your busyness has become an way of life that hurts you more than it does you good. Time to make some changes.

How to Stop Being So Busy

What Are Your Real Priorities?

We're often too busy because we want to have it all and everything is important. We want to learn the newest frameworks, play the latest videogames, have a popular blog, be in shape, meet with our friends, build our email list, get a promotion, contribute to open-source, etc.

Instead of trying to do everything, figure out which goals are most important to you. Rank them in order of importance and slice away at least half of your list. Then, focus on your top three and limit the time you spend on the others. This is a painful exercise, but realize this: busy people have many priorities, productive people have few.

Where Are You Losing Time?

You might have more time than you think. When you're too busy and every day feels like a rush, it's easy to overlook the thirty minutes of social media when you wake up or the hour of Netflix at night.

Use a tool like Toggl to figure out what you're spending your time on every day. Create categories like deep work, admin, health, social, and leisure. Track how you spend your time for at least a few days. You'd be surprised at the insights such an exercise can deliver. Use those insights to prioritize and spend your time better.

Do You Have Margin?

We often feel busy because we always seem to be rushing from one thing to the other. We wake up, skip breakfast, run to our laptop (if we're working remotely) or jump in our case (if we commute). Then comes meeting after meeting interspersed with deep work. You barely have time to catch a breath.

If that's you, think about building some margin into your schedule. With that, we mean scheduling in more time than you think you'll need for certain tasks. This is important because we're not so good at predicting and tasks have a tendency to take longer than we think they will. In addition, robust schedules have some slack built into them. You won't feel nearly as rushed.

Are You Saying Yes to Everything?

If you're too busy, there's a good chance you say yes to everything that comes your way. While it's important to say yes to opportunities that advance your goals (even if you don't think you can do them) it's not good to say yes to things that aren't important or don't advance your goals.

Busy people say yes quickly, while productive people say yes slowly. Lean towards yes, but consider your circumstances, the extra workload it'll bring, and how it will advance your goals and priorities.

Are You Using the Word Busy All the Time?

How we think about the world and ourselves will manifest itself in how we talk to others. But it works the other way round too. How we talk to others will influence how we think about the world and ourselves.

The human brain loves consistency. If we continuously tell others that "we're so busy," we'll change our behavior to make it so. That's why it's better to scrap the word busy from your vocabulary and replace it with something more positive and constructive:

  • I've been working hard on this open-source project.
  • I'm working on a new feature that's taking up a lot of my time.
  • I'm making progress on a new website I'm building.

It'll make for a more interesting conversation than the generic "I'm so busy." It's also much better than using busyness as an excuse not to do something. Giving a specific reason will make people feel better about you rejecting their offer.


Being too busy is unhealthy. If you're feeling overwhelmed, try the following tips:

  • take some time out to prioritize
  • figure out where you're losing time
  • schedule in margin
  • stop saying yes to everything
  • stop using the word busy

Discussion

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Daragh Byrne

Great article. I agree with the point about saying yes to everything. And I'll add my own about how to say no to the discussion: