How to Escape the Busyness Trap

Santa Cruz west cliffs

Thoreau said it well: “It is not enough to be busy. The question is: what are we busy about?”

We bury ourselves in activities, put our head down, and toil away. Popping up to breathe years later, we look around and wonder where we are. This isn’t the life I wanted!

The new year is a great time to pause and ask ourselves, “do my daily activities support my dreams?”

I know this well because in 2008, I said yes to everything. Meetings. Networking events. Speaking engagements. Newly self-employed, I lacked the skills to turn away low-paying or difficult clients, much less good ones.

Starting out in business, we need the money, so we shoulder any available work. If life is a tree, branches of obligations grow haphazardly, leaves of busyness sprouting from those branches. The trunk, core dreams and goals, can stand forgotten.

It’s logical for us to create systems to maximize productivity and then accept additional clients. The risk is that the calendar dictates our days and we end up swimming relentless laps in an exhausting pool of stress.

For me, it all came to a head in the middle of 2012. I was doing well financially, but the effort consumed my mind. I struggled to stay present. My temptress phone beckoned during “free time” while anxiety gremlins roamed my mind at night.

I was overwhelmed, but a solution slowly evolved. Looking back, I see simple steps can help anyone fend off busyness.

A Santa Cruz sunset.

Walkers enjoy a perfect Santa Cruz sunset.

Acknowledging we’re too busy

It’s hard to realize our own misery. A line from Derek Sivers‘, one of my favorite thinkers, summed up my situation: “If you’re busy, you’re out of control.”

My insightful wife guided me toward making a change; a partner, friend, or coworker may help you as well. Even with her prodding, it took awhile. Like many fundamental changes, the realization hit when the pain of staying outweighed making a change.

The difficult part was deciding which branches to chop from the busy tree.

Questioning the reasons why

It’s tough to escape the momentum of a plan set in motion years earlier. How do we slow things down?

A solution is to focus on asking why we do any action. We meet clients in-person. Why. We go to networking events. Why.

This process helps us identify work that results in wasted effort or tremendous headaches. Time tracking is a powerful way to quantify how we spend our hours. From there, choose the 20% of business that nets 80% of the goal — classic Pareto principle . My personal goal wasn’t just income: free time, lower stress, and revenue were equal tripod legs.

Since we often build success on a Foundation of Yes, this isn’t easy. Even when we can finally afford to say no, turning down an energy-draining client feels like throwing money away. Politely refusing referrals is flipping the bird to years of building connections. It seems wasteful, entitled, and even stupid.

It’s why a famous actor says yes to a movie they know is bad. To paraphrase Kevin Costner, “Who am I to turn away a role other people need so much?”

Yet no is the path to redemption.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Looking north along the coast of Big Sur at Bixby Canyon Bridge.

Targeting bloated obligations and responsibilities

Saying no feels awkward at first, but we improve. We finish up tough projects and new work that better fits our wheelhouse fills the void. Building on that success to examine other facets of life like eliminating energy-draining vampires and possessions can further transform our world.

Continually pruning our obligations is an important ongoing action. Do this by focusing on hell yeah activities, those that speak to our core interests. If it isn’t hell yeah, say no. As a bonus, curtailing the chaos leaves more time for deeper, focused efforts that yield richer fruit.

Seeing new opportunities through a mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Redwoods in the mist during a hike in Big Sur.

Filling the space

Once we prune the leaves on the busy tree, new opportunities feel the warm sun and blossom. While I still run my streamlined business, now I also can say hell yeah to flowers of travel and a budding creativity I’d sidelined for years.

This is not an ode to laziness; hard work and perseverance are good for us. Saying yes to crappy jobs in high school trains our muscles – physical and mental – to strain through running a business. Those experiences are integral to our journey. We all need those struggles to better appreciate the fruits of future labors.

YouTube star Casey Neistat nails it when he says “success is measured by the amount of time we don’t spend doing things we hate.” Saying yes to everything results in unintentional busyness. Focus. Lop off a few branches. Take control.

As the year unfolds, ponder new goals and “required” schedule items. Ask why you’re doing them.

Then start saying no.


P.S. Dig this? You might like the list of tools I use to stay focused.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet sunset on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.

My friend Reese enjoys a quiet moment on the west cliffs of Santa Cruz.