Tony Crabbe, renowned business psychologist and best-selling author of the brilliant book, Busy, argues that just like the Siamese Fighting Fish, which given enough food will eat itself to death, we need to change our relationship with work to survive.
“In my experience, people who are just too busy, generally complain about three things:
“I’m overwhelmed. I’ve got so much on my plate.”
“I’ve got this frenetic, mad schedule which is leaving me exhausted.”
“I’m left with this quiet sense of failure because I don’t feel I’m necessarily doing the most important things I should do at work – and I’m not enjoying quality time with my family or friends either.”
Why are we so busy?
“Indulge me for a moment while I take you on a subterranean diversion to look at a really stupid fish. If you keep a Siamese Fighting Fish in a bowl and give it too much food, it will literally eat itself to death.
“Now you might say the problem is there’s too much food. I would say the problem is the this fish makes the wrong choice. It keeps on choosing to eat.
“When it comes to an endless stream of work, stoked by email, social media, meetings and water cooler chats, are we really any different?
“One study found that people given a choice between being idle or electrocuting themselves, most people chose the electric shock. We’re hooked on stimulation and consumption.
“Are we busy because there’s too much to do? I don’t think so. I think, like the Siamese Fighting Fish, we’re busy because we keep on choosing busyness. We can’t help ourselves.
“So what can you do about the three most common things people tell me is bothering them?”
1. Overcoming overwhelm
“If you work in a busy modern work environment the first thing you need to accept is that there will always be more to do than you have time for.
“We’ve created a whole identity around busy. More equals success. Whether that’s more stuff. Or more stuff to do.
“I’ve been out of the office for two days and look how many emails I’ve got,” we boast to colleagues.
“But when we try to do everything, we end up achieving very little. And doing it to a standard we’re not proud of.
“So instead of saying yes to everything you need to choose.
“You need to ask yourself the question: “Is this meeting more important than writing this report?” You then make an informed choice. You are mindfully doing the important things. Not reacting to the loudest or newest thing.”
2. Slowing down frenetic schedules
“The temptation of busyness, of checking email or searching the Internet can be harder to resist than sex or chocolate. In fact office workers tend to switch attention every 3 minutes.
“How much serious thinking can we do in 3 minutes? One researcher found that we get 40% less done when we change so often.
“My biggest concern is how this leaves you feeling. Switching all the time is like shaking up a snow globe. Psychologists call this phenomena ‘Psychic entropy.’ And it’s exhausting.
“So what can we do? Resisting is futile. If you hear a notification on your phone and you ignore it, researchers have found your performance goes down because you’re wondering what it was about.
“The best thing to do is to avoid the temptations altogether.
“How can you do that? If you just cluster things together, like answering emails in one go, or turning your phone off while you write that report, that would be a good step.
“If you switch less often, you’ll find you not only get much more done. You’ll be much less exhausted at the end of each day. Try it!”
3. Finding meaning instead of a sense of failure
“The opposite of busy is not relaxing on a beach. It’s being able to bring sustained focus onto the people or things that matter in your life, despite all this noise.
“I worked with a senior exec in a global software business and he stood up in front of thousands of his team and told them he had never missed his children’s birthdays. Never missed his anniversary. Had always been there on the first day of term.
“People were amazed. How had this guy with thousands of direct reports and millions of dollars of turnover resting on his shoulders managed to do that? Because he had decided that these were the things that were not negotiable. With all the other sacrifices he made for work, these were the things that reminded him and his family what was important. So he organised his hectic life around them.
“One of the things I have done is to create four personal values for myself. And at the start of each day, I ask myself what in my To Do list today is going to help me to move on with one of those? Because that’s where real satisfaction lies.”
What can you do to change your relationship with busy?
“No-one chooses to be overwhelmed. Or too busy for the important stuff. Or to live with a sense of failure. Or to be exhausted all the time.
“But our choices add up to that.
“Unlike the stupid Siamese Fighting Fish, you can choose a different path.
“A little while ago I was terribly busy working from home, and I bumped into my 4 year old daughter on the stairs who wanted some of my time. I caught myself in the act of telling her I was too busy. Instead I listened to her and we ended up dancing. Just for a couple of minutes.
“As a four year-old, that was enough. She skipped off happily to do something else, pleased we had done what she wanted.
“For me it was a beautiful butterfly moment that I’ll never forget. It transformed my day. It was important to her. When I made it important to me too, I got a great sense of fulfillment from just a couple of minutes out of my day.”
My challenge to you, is catch yourself in the act more often.
“Catch yourself deciding “Whether or not”, rather than “Which”.
“Catch yourself in the act of choosing “switch” over “focus”.
“Catch yourself in the act of choosing “the obvious” over “the important”.
“And catch yourself in the act of choosing “busy” over “the big stuff” or the “butterfly moments”.
You can buy Tony Crabbe’s excellent book, ‘Busy – how to thrive on a world of too much’ at amazon and all decent bookshops.
Do Something Different offers a Better Work Life Balance programme as part of our Corporate Collection.