Are You As Busy As You Think You Are?
by Casey Walrath • April 30, 2015
Hi there! How’s your week going?
I bet I know the answer. It’s probably the same answer 90% of working professionals give, almost without thinking:
“I’m good. Busy, though.”
Well, I hope you really are good, but I want to talk about the other part. You’re busy. I believe it! I’m busy. Everybody’s busy. So busy. All the time. If you’re an American office worker, chances are you spend more time than you want working after-hours and skipping vacation (or worse, working while on vacation!) After all, there’s just so much to do! It hurts just thinking about how busy we all are.
Being busy—or at least saying you’re busy— is almost a white-collar badge of honor. Not being busy is a sign of weakness. If you’re not busy you’re not working hard. It’s not enough to have a lot on hour plate. Being busy means you’re constantly thinking about and projecting how much you have to do.
But the reality is, being busy isn’t the same as having a lot to do, let alone being productive. “Busy,” in my experience, is actually a state of mind that implies a frenzied, vague, and constant stress that actually prevents you from getting anything meaningful done. Stress, as everybody knows, leads to all sorts of health and psychological problems. If being busy is being stressed (and I think it is), then it’s literally killing you!
I’m not immune from feeling busy, but I’ve found some solutions that (usually) help. It starts with remembering that most of the time I’m not as busy as I think I am, and that’s okay.
Obviously, I don’t know your situation, but here’s what I try to tell myself when I’m feeling busy and stressed. Hopefully it’ll help you too! It all boils down to a few ideas that are simple in principle, but might take a lifetime to master.
1. Avoid Feeling Guilty For Not Doing Something Else
Often, when I say I’m “busy,” what I mean is “I have a vague sense that there are other things I should be doing right now and I feel bad about it.” In my job, that could mean having an underperforming client, a to-do list I haven’t checked all week, or an email I haven’t followed up on for some reason.
“Busy” is the voice in the back of your mind repeating “You should be doing X. Why aren’t you planning for Y? Have you even started on Z!?”
Often, that thinking leads to one of two outcomes: either completely avoiding a task or fixating on it to the detriment of everything else.
For example, I enjoy writing, but producing blog content (both personal and professional) can be time-consuming and difficult to start. It’s easy to push off writing for other activities, whether it’s work or just lazily skimming ESPN.com. Either way, I feel guilty knowing there’s all this writing that isn’t getting done. Whether I’m productive or not, I feel busy!
On the flip side, If I have a client that isn’t getting results there’s a temptation to spend hours tweaking and fine-tuning until, somehow, things turn around, even if that means spending huge amounts of time on changes that are marginal at best. If I start another project the nagging guilt returns: “That client isn’t performing well; why aren’t you fixing it!?” Feeling guilty = feeling busy. This is a bad thing!
Whenever I feel like avoiding or fixating on a task, I try to ask one question: What can I directly control today?
2. Understand What You Can Actually Control
Remember that you really can’t control everything. You can try, but you’ll fail. The good news is, you’ll feel better when you accept it!
In the case of an underperforming client whose Paid Search account I’m managing, I can control bids, ads, landing pages, keywords, and a lot of smaller things, but It’s important to remember that not all of those are useful in every situation. For a brand new client, testing landing page and ad copy is probably more valuable than making small bid adjustments to every single keyword. There’s no point trying to lower costs by 5% if the landing page isn’t producing enough leads!
Or maybe my campaigns are producing leads at a good cost, but the client’s sales team isn’t closing them. I can offer suggestions but ultimately that’s out of my control, so it’s not worth stressing about as long as I’m doing my job.
Often, even the best ideas just need time to run their course. Making more than a few changes at a time can make it impossible to learn which changes actually made a difference. It’s important to be able to say “I’m done with this for now, and I’m not going to look at it again today.” That requires patience and communication, so my clients understand why I’m doing or not doing something.
Knowing what you can control frees up time to do things I’d otherwise be avoiding, like writing! But it still takes focus to be productive, which leads us to the next suggestion:
3. Don’t Just “Do Stuff.” Instead, Complete Tasks.
My job allows me a decent amount of freedom in how I structure my time, which can be a blessing and a curse. Have you ever put in a full workday and then, as you’re leaving, asked yourself “What did I even do today?” I’ve felt like that before. The trick, for me is differentiating between “doing stuff” and actually completing tasks.
Doing stuff is what I call “work-like behavior.” It might mean glancing at a client’s account in one window while scanning Facebook in another and occasionally glancing at Twitter on my phone. To an observer, this looks a lot like working hard. I might even convince myself that I’m busy, but it’s a lie! Just doing stuff is the empty calories of a workday: it only leads to stress and heart attacks.
Much more effective is to spend time completing tasks. A task is a something with a concrete goal, a beginning, and an end. That doesn’t mean everything you do needs to be completed in a single sitting, but it does mean knowing what you’re doing and why. If you’re “just checking” a client’s account then chances are you’re doing stuff, not completing tasks. Instead of “checking” an account, it’s better to make a short list: “I’m going to review our three or four top-spending campaigns, see if any new keywords have an unacceptably high cost per lead, and check the progress of an A/B ad copy test I started last week.”
Depending on your specific job, the tasks you set might be more or less flexible each day, but it’s important to begin with an idea of what you’re going to do. For me, I like to roughly schedule my day around discreet projects such as “before lunch I’ll make a new landing page variant for client X, write a blog post for 30 minutes, then there’s a scheduled call with client Y at 10:30, and after that I’ll review bids for the top keywords for client Z.” Once I complete a task I’ll give myself permission to read a news site or talk to coworkers for a few minutes, secure in the knowledge that I actually got something done instead of just doing stuff.
4. Stay Organized & Realistic
Of course, completing tasks can be hard because it requires organization. There are innumerable systems for staying organized, and you have to find what works for you, whether that’s a to-do list, Evernote, sticky notes, or a calendar.
Honestly, I’m not a very organized person by nature, and probably never will be. I’m not very good at long to-do lists, and detailed day planning make my eyes glaze over. So I try to schedule my time as simply as possible, by using 1-2 hour calendar blocks for each set of tasks. Scheduling large time blocks accomplishes two things: 1. It keeps me from underestimating how long tasks actually take and 2. It provides flexibility for dealing with distractions that inevitably pop up.
Realistically, you’re probably not going to complete more than two or three major tasks in a day. So if you pack your calendar full every day you’re going to drop things and feel busy. Be honest with yourself when you’re scheduling your time. Take into account travel, call delays, and, yes, even the need to unwind during the day.
It’s also important to be realistic with the tasks you take on. If a client emails during a day that’s already full, then I might respond, “Cool, I understand that you need that done soon. I’ve got a few scheduled projects I need to complete, so I’ll schedule time to work on that the day after tomorrow, and I’ll follow-up with you when it’s completed.”
If it’s a big project I might have to say, “Let’s push that to next week so I can devote my full attention to it. I’m blocking out time to complete it Thursday.” Clients know what it’s like to be busy and will appreciate that approach as long as you’re communicating and not just making excuses.
At some point, even the best-organized, most productive workday has to end, which leads me to my final suggestion:
5. Go Home, Then Be Home.
As much as possible, resist the temptation to regularly stay at work late. I know that my production tends to dip as the day progresses anyway, so if I’m staying past 5:30 I’m probably not getting much done. Besides, I don’t know about you, but I get cranky if I work late.
When I’m home I don’t check my work email unless I have a specific, prearranged reason to do so. If a client has a project that needs to be checked after hours or on the weekend, I schedule a specific time to do it so I can have the rest for myself. If your job requires you to be on-call all the time, all I can say is that I hope it’s really important to you!
You might love your job so much that putting in 60+ hours is no sacrifice, but spending time with family, friends, and hobbies will ultimately make you a better, happier, and more interesting person, so don’t neglect those just because you feel busy. Sometimes you might have a project that genuinely requires a few late nights, but even then you can focus on completing tasks rather than just doing stuff to keep it from dominating your life.
If you follow my advice I can’t promise that you’ll never feel overworked again, but hopefully you’ll be more productive and less stressed. Maybe you’ll realize, like me, that you’re usually not as busy as you think you are.
Maybe you’ll even have something different to say the next time someone asks you, “How’s your week?”