October 1, 2023

The Business of Busyness: How to Banish Toxic Productivity

September is the month of possibility. It’s blank notebooks and new pens. A fresh start and a chance to finish the year with a bang. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the Fall.”

But all that possibility comes at a price. As the fourth quarter looms, everyone tries to harvest the seeds they’ve planted all year. Your best-laid plans give way to the tyranny of everyone else’s expectations. Days feel like Whack-a-Mole with a never-ending to-do list. But you aren’t alone. In a pre-pandemic study of 17,000 people, a whopping 86% felt they didn’t have enough time to do what they wanted to do. And those were the good old days. In the perfect storm of today's workplace chaos, this may be the worst September ever.

And the real kicker? This business of busyness doesn’t actually work for anyone. Not only does it make us less productive, it makes us less compassionate. In the famous Good Samaritan study, two groups of theology students were sent to a meeting: One group was told to rush, and the second that they had plenty of time. En route, both groups encountered an older man, slumped and groaning in the gutter. Of the time-rich group, 63% stopped to check on the man. But only 10% of the rushed group stopped. One seminarian even stepped over the victim to hurry to the meeting. Busyness robs us of our humanity.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Here are three ways to take back September (plus your time, empathy and sanity).

  1. Reframe the way you think and talk about time

    Busyness has become a status symbol - we treat it as a measure of our worth, our impact, our value, even our morality. And we’ve long equated time with money such that wasting the former means losing the latter. The big question is whose time and whose money are we managing? When we work for others, our ability to take back time for ourselves is intertwined with how we think we are perceived. When we feel we need to be busy at all costs, it’s no wonder we cling to our task lists.

    In her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Jenny Odell challenges us to loosen our chronological accounting of time. Not all minutes are equal. A boring meeting feels like an interminable slog, while an engaging one flies by. And the pandemic upended our collective sense of time by removing the usual contours of meetings, events and social interactions. Far from being fixed, our perceptions of time are malleable. Odell exhorts us to shift from always trying to “live more productively,” to trying to “be more alive” in any given moment, to invite our full presence to stretch our perceptions of time.

    So how do you make this sizable shift in mindset at a time when everyone around you is obsessed with productivity? By slowing down, you can savor specific moments and engage with productivity in a better way. Research demonstrates that even slowing down to daydream has a positive effect on our focus when we return to the abandoned task. And taking the time to feel awe or wonder expands your perceptions of time available. Finally, change how you talk about time. Stop yourself from reflexively answering “busy” when someone asks how you are. Ban words that speed you up, like “running a quick errand” or “grabbing a quick bite.” Your words shape your feelings—by talking a different talk, you can learn to walk a different walk.
  2. Revisit your priorities

    When it comes to productivity, action is deceiving. When we focus on getting things off our plates, we feed the addictive need to constantly feel like we are getting something done. But how often are the actions we take the right ones to achieve the things that matter?

    In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, author Oliver Burkemann offers profound advice: “pay yourself first.” When you collect your paycheck, he explains, the conventional wisdom tells you to put money aside for the future. Fund your 401k before you book that vacation, save for a rainy day before you buy yourself a new raincoat. The same discipline works wonders for time. By carving out time at the start of your day to do the things that matter to you, you avoid running out of steam and time when you're done with everyone else’s priorities.

    That carved-out time may also help you overcome an ill-fated bias toward action. We mistake activity for achievement and conflate action with progress. By granting yourself time for reflection, you slow the treadmill, consider alternatives and tackle challenges with the fresh thinking they deserve. As Peter Drucker once said, “Follow effective action with quiet reflection. From the quiet reflection, will come even more effective action.” It just takes a little time.
  3. Don’t work alone

    Two heads are better than one. A problem shared is a problem halved. So many timeless adages remind us that we work better when we work together. But a to-do list can feel like a solitary cross to bear. Research does tell us that when a task is simple, doing it yourself is the best way. But as complexity increases, an interacting group is more efficient. With a thorny problem, the higher quality of ideas and solutions generated by a group far outweighs the hassles of coordinating a team.

    The obvious solution is to ask for help. But that’s not always as easy as it sounds. In a society that honors and rewards individual achievement, asking for assistance can feel like weakness or defeat. The next time you hesitate to ask, consider this: science tells us that asking for help makes you look smarter, makes others feel good, and even encourages them to like you more. Making the ask requires changing some hard wired habits, but it will lessen the burden, help you feel less alone and save a lot of precious time.

If you’re already drowning in the demands of September, it’s time to banish toxic productivity. There are a million books that promise to help you build a better to-do list, squeeze more hours into the day and police yourself with gadgets and tracking devices. Don’t fall for it. Pause, pour that extra cup of coffee, enjoy the changing leaves and take back your time.

First published in Forbes.com.

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