This year, most of us have spent more time at home than ever before. Initially, it seemed like we would have more free time – after all, we weren’t commuting, our social lives pretty much ground to a halt, and we weren’t pursuing our hobbies and interests the way we usually did. But in fact, the opposite was true. Many people reported feeling busier and more stressed than ever – and considering the pervasive culture of busyness that already existed, that’s no mean feat.
So why, exactly, do we feel pulled in so many directions? With digital tools now able to automate parts of our workflow and streamline our tasks, why do we still not seem to have enough hours in the day? Are we really so bad at managing our time, or is work culture and expectation mostly to blame? Regain control of your day by understanding the six main reasons why you feel too busy.
In our fast-paced, hyper-connected culture, busyness is worn like a medal of honor. It’s a status symbol that we use to impress. We use it to influence other people, because being busy means we’re important and sought-after. We use it with our coworkers and bosses, to prove that we’re hard-working, dedicated and productive. And we use it on ourselves – to feel validated, to boost our sense of value and self-worth, to feel important.
This type of performative productivity can be contagious. When we hear how busy other people are, we feel like we need to be equally busy. And the more we tell people how busy we are, the more we’re convinced that’s the truth – even when it might not be. In many ways, we’re proud of our busyness – but if we’re not enjoying the process, we need to ask whether it’s worth it.
Another reason we might feel too busy is because we’re saying “yes” to everything, even if we don’t actually have the capacity to do it. At work, saying "no" can be incredibly hard. Many of us are people pleasers, and we worry that saying “no” to something – whether helping someone out or attending a meeting – will be seen as rejection, or make us appear unhelpful or hostile.
In life, we’re conditioned to believe that saying “yes” to opportunities is the right thing to do. If a boss or manager asks you for a favor, the desire to impress kicks in and makes it even harder to decline. And right now, when jobs are increasingly at stake and many of us are feeling invisible, the urge to prove your worth can be overwhelming. So we say “yes” to things even when we know we don’t have time.
When we’re feeling busy, many of us have a tendency to switch context, prioritizing the jobs that are ostensibly “urgent”, replying immediately to new messages and emails, and spending hours on low-value tasks. In doing so, we lose the ability to create the focus and space required for productive deep work.
In contrast to deep work, the shallow work that busyness favors doesn’t give us any meaningful sense of fulfilment or accomplishment. We don’t feel like we’ve actually achieved anything, even though we’ve spent the day in a panic trying to get things done. This makes use feel even busier, because we believe we still haven’t made a dent in all that work. If we instead prioritize deep work and plan low-value tasks around it, we can ensure we’ll actually achieve something of value at the end of each day.
In our digital world, distractions are all around us. Even if you work from home, interruptions are everywhere, and unsurprisingly they can wreak havoc with our productivity. The rapid move to remote work has led to a rapid increase in digital noise, as collaboration shifts to Zoom meetings, Skype calls and Slack threads.
Instant virtual communication and the movement of work email and Slack onto our personal devices contributes to the pressure to be “always on”. Even if we’re in the middle of an important task, we may feel the need to stop what we’re doing to reply to a new message, but this can massively hamper our productivity. Considering that it takes nearly 30 minutes to refocus after being distracted, it’s no wonder our work’s suffering and we feel busier than ever.
If you don’t take steps to prioritize your own work and schedule the tasks that are important to you, you can lose sight of the bigger picture. As we’ve seen, saying “yes” to other people’s requests is a huge contributor to busyness – but when we let others shape our day, it eats away at our sense of autonomy and self-direction.
When we lose control over the direction of our day, we begin to work reactively. Aside from adding new tasks and responsibilities to our workload, this removes our space for reflection and sense of progress. We lose sight of what really matters and feel adrift, disorganized and unsure of the value we’re creating. This in turn only heightens our sense of busyness – feeding the idea that there is so much that we have yet to do.
Of course, our work tasks are only a part of our responsibilities. We also have important commitments within our personal lives, from spending time with children, seeing friends and family, exercising, or just prioritizing our own health and wellbeing by doing the things we enjoy.
When we don’t protect time, energy and space for these personal commitments, we feel stretched too thinly. This is why work time management needs to be approached holistically, factoring in the personal with the professional. That starts with maintaining clear boundaries between work and home, so that no matter how busy work gets, we don’t allow it to eat into our downtime or harm our wellbeing.