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When Sweden announced the results of an experiment on how a shorter workday can actually make employees more productive, I was surprised by some of the reactions. Lots of people were questioning if that could ever work in America. I think that we are still confusing being busy (how much we work) with actually achieving something (the outcome).

The “busyness syndrome” is killing people at work in America. People feel tired, stressed out, and even depressed because of this emotional tension. Being busy makes you feel that there’s no room for anything else, that no matter how hard you work, you would always be playing catch-up. We were taught that being busy is good, creating a sense of pride: the more important you are, the busier you are supposed to be. And the other way around.

Rewiring Our Brains (a New Approach to Busyness).

“For my daughter it’s important that I’m present when she’s (swimming) competing. How do I make time? I put it on my calendar” — Lee Iacocca, former Chrysler CEO

We all need to rethink our relationship with being busy. Who is managing your time? You or others? Or is it your perception? Yes, many times we are so into playing the “busy” character that we have a hard time understanding what we are doing. And, most importantly, why we are doing it.

When I moved to New York, I expected New Yorkers to work super hard. I was surprised to realize they didn’t work as hard as I used to back in my home country Argentina. Regardless of how hard they work or not, all New Yorkers play the “busyness” role. It’s in their DNA; it’s part of their culture.

We’ve all been wired to think that being busy is right: being busy is not enough, you have to look busy too. Similar with being stressed out, it’s a clear sign that we’ve lost control of our work (and most probably of our everyday life too). “I’m busy” has also become the easy way out for those who want to procrastinate or don’t want to take on more responsibilities. People will go and ask someone else for help.

Many years ago, Lee Iacocca, who was at that time the CEO of Chrysler, mentioned during an interview that he was always present when his daughter participated in swimming competitions. Having his dad present meant a lot for her. “How do you it, if you are a super busy person?” — someone in the crowd asked. “I put it on my calendar,” Mr Iacocca candidly replied. The lesson is simple: busyness is a state of mind. Or we control it, or it takes over our lives.

Start by challenging your attitude. Next time you feel busy, ask yourself: Am I really busy? Am I using busyness as an excuse? How can I regain control of my time and joy? Next time you happen to have “free” time, enjoy it and use it for good.

A New Mindset Requires New Behaviors.

“To fill a cup you have to empty it first” — Japanese proverb

1. The good side of being busy: if you have a job your clients are reaching out for help on a job, that’s a good sign. Not having a job, or work to do, is really bad. As a society, we have lost the joy of working. We need to remove the complaints and go back to celebrating work, reconnecting with the pleasure of doing and achieving.

2. Prioritize: time is not something that we have, time is something that we make. And we make time by prioritizing. People normally say: “I’m invited to too many meetings” as if it was something they cannot control. What you can control is which meetings you accept. Most importantly, you can control where you want to put your energy and passion, where you can add value, versus simply attending a meeting just because someone asked you.

3. The more you do, the more you can do: to master the art of achievement requires building a new habit. Think of exercising: those who do it occasionally have a hard time getting started. They normally suffer while those who do it on a regular basis not only feels like it’s an easier task, but they actually enjoy it. They are driven by I like exercising versus I have to exercise.

4. Empty your cup: building on the Japanese proverb, you need to get rid of things before you fill your cup again. Clear your calendar and refocus your priorities. It’s not easy. I remember how a year or so ago, I decided to dramatically clear my calendar. By reducing meetings duration to 15 minutes instead of one hour, by declining meetings without a clear purpose or in which I thought someone’s participation would be better than mine I took back my calendar. It was scary at first –we are used to having our workday being lead by our calendars- instead of our priorities leading our calendar.

5. Celebrate achievements: forget your to-do list (task oriented) and think of your “achievement list.” Artists don’t celebrate their trip to a store to buy brushes and canvases; they celebrate their finished work: their creation. Some tasks might be boring or seem unimportant. Think of what you’ve achieved. Every night, before you go to bed, write down your achievements. You’ll finish the day celebrating what you’ve achieved instead of complaining about how busy your day was.

Keep Your Mind Fresh.

I hate checklists. So think of these questions as a fresh reminder. Write them on post-its and put them on your bathroom mirror or next to your computer as a way to avoid becoming a victim of busyness.

  • Am I using busyness as an excuse?
  • Am I focusing on the activities where I can really add value?
  • Am I saying NO with conviction?
  • Am I valuing and enjoying what I do?

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