Let’s be real for a second. We live in a time where the phrase “I’m just so busy” is taken as a kind of ‘badge of honour’, like a statement that proudly proclaims to the world, “Yep, I’m doing something with my life.”
But for all the times this statement is made, the sentence is rarely finished with the words “…but I’m getting things done.”
In an age where we’re always being updated on the latest news, notified of everything everyone else is doing and subsequently reminded of how we’re not doing enough, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves drowning in to-do lists but constantly procrastinating and forgetting to actually get tasks done.
We’re just doing so many things that nothing is really being completed and we’ve convinced ourselves that the time we spend postponing tasks, and the divided attention we have when we finally get around to working on them, amount to ‘productivity’ and ‘multitasking’.
The funny thing is, if you search ‘multitasking’ the results will display news articles, blog posts and research on how trying to juggle several tasks at once can actually be cognitively detrimental. ‘You’re Not Busy, You Just Think You Are‘, from Huffington Post UK, quotes Dr Earl Miller and Brigid Schulte to explain how multitasking is now more of a debunked myth than a sought-after superpower.
So, the question is, when you do in fact have a lot to do, how can you stop being ‘busy’ and start really being productive?
Well, the first step you can take is to declutter your mind.
In the words of David Allen,
Your mind is for having ideas, not holding them.
This concept isn’t as abstract as it may seem at first. For instance, students are encouraged to write a plan first when answering an essay question in an exam. This is because getting ideas down on paper as they are formed means you’re less likely to forget your points and you’re able to develop your thoughts because you can refer back to them. Ultimately, writing a plan can lead to increased focus, which results in a well-structured, coherent answer.
This example leads me nicely to the first of three bits of advice I have for decluttering your mind (you’ve gotta love a smooth segue).
‘Capture’ your thoughts
Keeping things in your head all day, every day can have a detrimental effect on your personal organisation. You might have experienced those moments when you’re trying to work on one task, but mental alarm bells are ringing, reminding you that you haven’t finished another task that now seems to be more important and then you descend into chaos as you try to do everything, but in doing so achieve nothing.
Or maybe you’ve never experienced this because you have strong willpower and have never fallen victim to the ‘procrastination monkey‘. Must be nice.
If you have been there and done that, keeping a notebook with you, or just having access to a device where you can make notes throughout the day, can be very helpful for organising yourself.
‘Capturing’ (in other words, writing down or recording) new ideas or reminders when they pop into your head means you don’t have to store them, making more mental capacity available for the task you’re currently working on. By doing this, you’ll be more present, more able to process the information you’re handling in the moment, and more likely to remember the other tasks later because you’ve literally written them down.
I use a notebook for breaking large tasks down into smaller, more manageable ones and also for jotting down random thoughts and daily reminders. Some of the benefits I’ve found in doing this include:
- My workload is made to feel less overwhelming.
- I can keep better track of what I’ve done.
- I also feel more confident and motivated because I can see that I’ve already completed a few parts of what was once an intimidating and significant task.
- I have increased focus because I can identify the specific things I still need to do.
- I forget less and don’t feel ‘scatter-brained’.
If you feel like you could also benefit from ‘capturing’ your thoughts, you don’t even have to buy an official diary or a super pretty, aesthetic journal – you could use an unused notebook, a piece of paper, a school planner, the Notes app on your phone, a Word document…you catch my drift.
If you’d like to learn more about the benefits of writing your thoughts and other things down, check out these articles:
- ‘How Writing Things Down Can Change Your Life‘ – Lifehack.
- ‘7 Powerful Reasons Why You Should Write Things Down‘ – The Positivity Blog.
Take a break from social media
We’re inundated with information constantly. Whilst it is definitely important to have an awareness of what’s going on with your family, friends and in the world generally, the problem is that we lose perspective on what’s important because everything is made to seem urgent.
Every chime, ping and buzz conditions a response in us such that we believe we need to be notified of every little thing going on in the world. But then we lose the ability to differentiate that which is truly important from the information that doesn’t add value to our lives and doesn’t really matter (in the long run anyway).
Taking a break from social media can be very cathartic, leaving your mind free from angry, typo-ridden threads, fake news and whatever Donald Trump has decided is a sufficiently ‘presidential’ tweet today.
If you’re in need of a break from social media, I’m sure you already have an idea of how you can go about a digital detox, but here are some suggestions just in case:
- Use StayFocusd or a similar browser extension to completely block your access to certain sites, or set a limit on the amount of time you spend on them in a day.
- Turn off notifications so that your concentration isn’t broken (It’s going to be quite ironic when the notification for this post appears in your feed though).
- Delete the apps that distract you so it takes more effort to access the content.
Realise you can’t do everything
The notion that we’re all “so busy” might also have an underlying factor in that we’re just taking on too many things, signing ourselves up for more than we can realistically manage.
Setting goals and expectations for yourself that more accurately reflect what you can achieve in a day can mean that you have less to be concerned about and you can purposefully plan your time so you do what you need to with increased focus, to a better standard.
Also, a lesson I’ve been learning recently is that I am not in control of everything – I can’t be, I don’t need to be, and it’s arguably for the best that I am not.
I personally dislike uncertainty and situations where I’m not armed with a definite plan, but life itself is uncertain. Random to-dos, jobs, tasks and requests are going to pop up every day. But I don’t need to pressure myself into saying ‘yes’ to things I know I won’t be able to deliver on just so that I can feel more in control, or to meet expectations I’ve imagined that people have of me (newsflash – they don’t).
Accepting that there is only so much that you can do is not a sign of weakness or lack of drive, rather it sends the message that you understand and are secure in your capabilities. It enables you to plan accordingly, relieving the mental stress that can come with being too eager to please, or always wanting to prove that you have it all together.
This also leads to avoiding situations where you over-promise and underdeliver.
So, if you’re tired of just being ‘busy’ but never getting anything done, take the first step in your personal development: declutter your mind and start being truly productive.
Life is too short to live transiently, moving from one unfinished goal to the next.
As always, onwards and upwards!