How to Stop Being so Busy
How to find freedom in a production based society.
It's becoming harder to escape the pressures of work and decompress when you get home. In the semi-post-pandemic age, you may even work from home where no one is there to stop you from piling on task after task. Hell, anyone who might intervene probably encourages your work addiction. It's in support of the bottom line, after all. Add on social media, where everyone is productive and shiny, navigating their neuroses like pros, and suddenly-you hate yourself.
The human brain is pretty good at weighing tasks versus their priority. It's good at deciphering equations to identify how and when to do certain things. But a conundrum arises when there is no way out from under the mountain of labor. There is nothing more confining than the stress of having too much to do and no time to do it. We spend our lives on the fringes of a workday. But we were meant to have things called hobbies and connect with one another.
When I returned to college after yet another gap year, I had to shed my busyness habit. I was taking 15 credit hours, a class load that left me with almost no free time. Let alone time to work on my creative endeavors. With creative work, if you aren't continuously turning the wheel, it stops producing in the same way. Enter money stress from stage left doing the cossack.
It only took a few months for me to become completely unhinged. I couldn't sleep, food didn't taste good, and all I did was think about how to get more done. The human optimization gurus on Youtube assured me I just needed to work "smarter, not harder." I see the truth in the phrase, but after an abundance of trial and error, I realized no amount of smarts was going to get me out of my dilemma. I literally had to do less, or I was going to burn out.
I'm still trying to untether my self-worth from how much I produce, but I'm learning to be ok with doing less.
"Mortality makes it impossible to ignore the absurdity of living solely for the future.”
-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
Cal Newport introduced the idea of slow productivity in an article for the New Yorker. He primes the mind by describing a labor experiment out of Iceland. The study found that out of twenty-five hundred participants working office jobs, a decrease to a four-day work-week lowered stress levels and made them feel more energized. Go figure, right?
"Everywhere, and especially in the long-hours economies, polls show a yearning to spend less time on the job,"
The solution to overexertion is evident but not easily implemented. Collectively we've created a machine that demands to be fed, and it eats our time. I can tell you from experience that even self-employment has pressures related to production. Competition is stiff. The most common method to differentiate your work and draw an audience is to post daily-and multiple times a day. But not on one platform; you need an Instagram presence, a following on Tik Tok, a Pinterest account, etc.
Creating engaging content on each respectful platform takes time and practice. It's simply unsustainable to pile on more and more content creation in tandem with creating meaningful work. So yes, the solution is to do less. But what you do accomplish needs to be the most impactful. Doing the best work often overrides the luck of the algorithm.
Newport has never had a social media account and has managed to write multiple New York Times best-selling books, landed a career as a writer for the New Yorker, and works during the year as a professor.
"Minimalists don't mind missing out on small things; what worries them much more is diminishing the large things they already know for sure make a good life good."
-Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World
With writing, instead of quantifying my production in terms of "one article per week," I'm switching to releasing projects when they feel done. There is a moment when everything clicks together, and you get that sweet, sweet dopamine rush when you know your piece is finished. Writing is my outlet, but it's so easy to compare your success to the success of others, and suddenly good work is your last priority, and instead, you're chasing a double-tap or a share.
Ask for Help
We all have our talents and weaknesses. It's important to rely on those around you to fill in the blanks where you lack. I like social media, but after too long of being tuned in and absorbing the countless amounts of information available on these sites, I tend to have a meltdown. So I leave most of the reel and social media content creation to my partner, who's better at it anyway. It's tough for someone like me, read, "control freak" to let the reigns go. But there's really no debate; I feel better without engaging with the masses and focusing more on writing content and behind-the-scenes business.
Seasons of Rest
Slow productivity is all about keeping your workload to a sustainable level. But also implementing seasons of rest. Newport uses his summers off as a professor to slow down. On a micro level, he takes a half-day off every week to go to a thought-provoking location, where he thinks about one problem he's dealing with away from all the noise.
If taking a half-day or a prolonged vacation is out of the question. Scheduling just 10 minutes a day for meditation, journaling, or reading, can reap real-life benefits for your mental and physical health. When I say schedule it, I mean schedule it. For those like me addicted to feeling "productive," you'll never fit time in for rest unless you're very intentional. I have to integrate cycles in my life where the calendar is empty and I have room to think. Without blank space and time to reflect, time tends to move faster, and it isn't easy to notice advancement or change what isn't working.
Things still have to get done, but it's about minimizing the mental anguish attached to approaching the task. Ever tried to write an article, and you simply can't find your groove? You spend 15 minutes scrolling on Instagram. You send five emails that could have waited, you get online to research, and suddenly you're on a friend from high school's Facebook page ogling at pictures of their dog.
Time management helps make the most out of the time you do dedicate to work. The goal is to improve the quality of work. Doing the things that push the needle the most and focusing on them entirely. In this area, it is important to work smarter, not harder, and make the most of your time. In my life, I like to use the Pomodoro technique and the 80/20 principle.
Pareto and His Peas
The 80/20 principle emerged out of a garden observation by Vilfredo Pareto in 1906. He noticed that 20% of his pea pods produced 80% of his peas. He later applied the principle to wealth in Italy, noticing that 80% of the wealth was owned by 20% of the people.
In 1940 while studying operations management, Dr. Joseph Juran discovered that 80% of the product malfunctions in a particular factory could be traced back to 20% percent of problems occurring in production.
To illustrate, regarding social media, I know reels yield the most followers. So I spend less time worrying about other types of content creation. Reels allow me to reach the most people and direct them to my writing or art effectively.
If you run a store, what 20% of products produce 80% of your sales? Often it's not your favorite work that does the best, so it can be a hard pill to swallow, but if you want to provide a service like creative works, you need to be willing to give your audience more of what they like most from you.
Remember how the brain is good at weighing tasks versus priority? Well, you can use this to your advantage. Pomodoro involves setting a timer for 25-30 minutes, working for that allotted time with intense focus, and then taking a break. There should be a deadline in mind within 24 hours (even if it is not actually due). This does two things for the brain. One, it swells the importance of the task by putting a tight deadline on its completion. Ever written a paper last minute, and it ended up being some of your best work? Having less time makes you focus more and thus produce a better product.
Even still, the brain can't focus intensely for hours on end, even if it's something entertaining, like a good movie. By 3 hours, you're wondering when it's going to end. Using the Pomodoro technique and working in intervals keeps your brain primed and ready to continue. You'd be surprised what even a short break can do.
The pressures to produce more aren't going anywhere, and it's up to each of us to minimize time spent on labor and maximize time spent on more restful/enriching experiences. It's not easy, and there's no one-size-fits-all solution. But hopefully, with some time management and an assessment of the most necessary tasks, some freedom can be derived from even the most stressful work environments.
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