How I Stopped Wearing “Busy” as a Badge of Honor and Found a Happier, More Productive Self

Busy is a crutch. A useless label. A cloak worn to navigate a world filled with FOMO where we are bombarded with both information and the opportunity for small wins that feel meaningful, but are actually trivial.

It’s a wrongful badge of honor that many, including myself, have worn as a sign of success.

But we’re not busy. What we are is unproductive, intellectually dull, and mentally obese.

I lived in the “I’m busy” club until about one month ago. I had one of the hardest years of my career, had to fire some of my best friends, say “NO” to many I love, and it’s forced me to take a different stance on how I make decisions, spend my time, and approach the world.

This post isn’t going to answer all your questions but it will:

  • Tell you the e-mail tricks that work for me
  • Help you stop having useless meetings that produce weak outcomes
  • Help you fight the procrastination bug
  • Introduce some alternatives that may just make your loved ones hate you less

This journey hasn’t been easy for me. The voice in my head (that dreaded ego) told me to follow in the footsteps of the many “celebrity entrepreneurs” that tout hustling till you drop and avoiding sleep to maximize every minute of your day.

This turned me from a kind, thoughtful guy who loved design and technology into a cold, almost robotic workaholic that obsessed over how I spent every minute of my day. What I couldn’t see was that this was making me miserable. I couldn’t see that it was driving away everyone that really mattered to me. That’s just the hustle, right?

My kind brother intervened and gave me Dan Harris’ 10% Happier.

Dan Harris is an ABC journalist who had a nationally televised panic attack on Good Morning America. Knowing it was time for a change, he set out to conquer the voice in his head responsible for his best and worst behavior.

Reading this book was the first step in my own journey — I began to think there was another way I could chase my dreams and “have it all,” but without making myself and everyone around me miserable.

Enter Mindfulness

“When you have one foot in the future and the other in the past, you piss on the present.” — Dan Harris

What Harris discovered was mindfulness. Practitioners focus on maintaining a moment by moment awareness of their thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, and surrounding environment. But acceptance is just as important as awareness, the attention given to our thoughts and feelings must come without judgement. For those practicing mindfulness, there is no right or wrong way to think or feel in any present moment. Meditation is a common method used to develop awareness and put distance between the voice in our heads and the reality of the present moment.

I’d seen it on every productivity site, self-help listicle, and it even made the cover of Time Magazine.

Like any fellow entrepreneur or lifehacker looking for a quick fix, I immediately searched “best meditation apps” in the app store.

I started with Headspace. It was a great app and after a few free sessions I patted myself on the back for meditating. But I honestly felt no real difference. I really just sat on the floor in my home office with my eyes closed listening to Andy Puddicombe guide the meditations and wishing I had his British accent.

I got rid of the app before their clever UX enticed me into paying for several sessions with a single tap.

But mindfulness has proven, scientific results. Trusted studies have shown it to be capable of everything from boosting our immune system, learning, and memory to decreasing stress, anger, and distractions.

Undeterred, I moved onto breathing techniques suggested in some listicle I found from a retargeted Facebook ad (note to self: next time you are going to spend hours searching for meditation techniques, consider incognito mode).

That lasted for about a month but I was still the same cranky, tired, and overworked asshole that my poor staff and loved ones had to put up with.

I tried a slew of other apps, but it wasn’t until I started meditating with Aaron LeMay that I started to unlock the real power of mindfulness. Aaron is a game designer and producer with credits in some of the world’s biggest gaming franchises like Saints Row and Halo. Most of all, he’s a trusted friend.

He made me realize that the problem wasn’t the outside world. That was my martyr complex talking. The real problem was me. I could try every app and technique on the planet, but it would prove fruitless if I didn’t first accept that my ego was in the way.

The inner-critic that told me that I had to work longer hours and be busier than everyone else had shifted and was now telling me that I had to “out-mindfulness” the competition. It sounds silly but that’s how I attacked it.

But once I started to use meditation to actually put distance between the ginormous chip on my shoulder and my present actions, that ego or inner critic in my head started to quiet down. I began to see my busy badge of honor to be the false token it really was.

TL;DR I needed to step toward the self-help aisle and away from the triple espresso shots that helped me prove that I could work later than anyone else.

I’m proud to say, as of January 4th, I’ve meditated for 100 straight days and have found a happier, more productive way of being. I’d like to share some of the tools and tips I use to prioritize the present over “busy.”

Resources and articles that you should check out:

Tools and Tips

Focus

First things first, focus on what matters. Because after all,

Measure Outcomes, not Outputs

Whether it’s how many pounds you want to lose by Friday, or confusing long-form KPIs at your startup, measurement is key to improvement.

I was obsessed with measurement. Before my shift from busy, I had every app, subscription service, and wearable device. Quantified self-ers had nothing on me.

Measurement is key and I’m not knocking it, but if you are measuring purely time or other measures of output, you are already failing the game.

I’ve tried a ton of measurement “frameworks,” from S.M.A.R.T. goals to assorted worksheets and exercises. But the one that stuck with me the most was the OKR framework made popular by Intel’s John Doerr. It is now used throughout Silicon Valley at Google, Uber, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

“Ideas are precious, but they are relatively easy. It’s execution that’s everything.” — John Doerr

Objectives are big hairy outcomes that the team or company wants to hit. Key results are what defines achievement of an objective. OKRs are important to note because they focus not on measures of output, but on the outcomes that define success.

Don’t equate busy with productive. If you aren’t working towards the key results that define success for your day, quarter, or year — you are wasting your time.

Some OKR resources:

Simplify, Simplify

“Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.”- Thoreau

Let software eat other software. Kill any apps or tools that you keep around and only occasionally use. Keeping a short list of apps allows you to be more efficient and focus only on what you really need.

Find the tools you trust and stick with them.

Go Analog

I use an unlined MoleSkine notebook for taking notes. Sure the millennial tech geek in me used to love taking notes with my laptop, iPad, or iPhone, but physically writing or sketching notes actually helps us retain more information. Plus, it eliminates digital distractions.

And if you aren’t taking notes at all, start. If someone shows up to a meeting and isn’t taking notes, I can tell they aren’t that focused on hearing what others have to say.

If you are interested:

I’m more of a digital addict than most. I used to despise anything that wasn’t living on a screen or on the internet. Paper in a post-internet society, laughable! Until I realized that despite all the notifications, beeps, boops, and distractions, the brain is actually a spatial information processor.

Jon Kolko’s article Abductive Thinking and Sensemaking does a great job of explaining how designers can make sense of all this chaos. Jon Kolko is the founder and Director of Austin Center for Design. His impact on the global design community is unprecedented and some of his books including Thoughts on Interaction Design and Exposing the Magic of Design are must reads for anyone solving problems in the world today (regardless of what you do for work)

Sensemaking and synthesis are key to solving any problem in an informed way. Allow me to explain without the complex design jargon. Ever watched a crime show or my personal favorite “Homeland” and seen the characters huddling around a “crazy wall?” Or as we call them at Digital Surgeons, “Murder Walls.”

Getting the information out in a war room style situation and off of the screen allows the brain to start to form spatial relationships. The information and chaos starts turning into connective tissue that helps inspire new solutions.

If you don’t have the space, make it. If you absolutely must do this online, you can use tools like Mural.

Email Less, Work More

If you don’t read another line of this post, please know one thing: email is the single thing most responsible for making you unproductive and miserable.

I used to LOVE my email apps. From my corporate start on Outlook, and subsequent switch to cloud-based platforms, I can say with confidence that I’ve tested and tried every app on the market. For a long time, Apple Mail stayed at the top of the list. One issue. It runs a bit slow, and once we made the jump to enterprise Google Apps at my firm, using Gmail in the browser just seemed to make more sense.

These are some tools I use to tame my email (apologies in advance to non-gmail users):

  • Step one, check your email less. Block out time at the start, middle, and end of your day to read and respond, but otherwise stay out of that inbox.
  • Sanebox — WOW, well worth the tiny annual fee. The amount of time I save never seeing thousands of junk emails is fantastic. They even send a weekly digest that summarizes what’s in my “sane folders” and brings important missed emails to my attention. That simple email never fails to make me smile, and I doubt I’ll ever cancel the service.
  • Keep it Old School, tips for “vanilla” Gmail:
  • Some love Google’s “Inbox” and if that works for you awesome, but for me vanilla Gmail is my jam. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  • Enable Priority Inbox and use the IMPORTANT feature. Let Google learn what matters: once trained it’s remarkable how well it can sift out messages of substance.
  • Turn on Keyboard shortcuts (how-to). If you aren’t using shortcuts in your work, you are wasting precious time. It sounds extreme, but those few seconds add up. I once calculated that I save over 40 hours a year by memorizing shortcut keys in my three most used apps.
  • People waste precious time organizing and putting emails into folders. Instead, use the custom filtering options. This automatically labels incoming emails into designated folders. Action first, archive immediately with the confidence they will be waiting in the appropriate folder should you need to find them
  • Master Gmail search, it will save you hours of time, and even more frustration. Especially when you’re in an airport and need to find that one email….
  • Boomerang Calendar and Gmail. Boomerang sends an email back to you when the recipient has yet to reply. This is great for when you forget to follow-up with clients, journalists, whoever.
  • Send Later — Nobody wants to be the guy sending 2 am emails. If you are sending emails that late, you are either grossly overworked (unproductive) or happen to be a night owl like me. Either way, you don’t want to set the example for your staff or colleagues that late night emails are the norm or expected, so take advantage of send later.
  • Pro-tip: scheduling emails to land in someone’s inbox first thing in the morning (be mindful of their timezone) can help, most time-starved executive or entrepreneurs tend to answer emails “last-in, first-out” (one of Google Exec Eric Schmidt’s 9 rules for emailing)
  • Use templates whenever possible. I took inventory of how many truly unique types of emails I sent and realized that I was wasting a tremendous amount of time essentially writing the same emails over and over again. Let copy/paste do its thing and you’ll spend less time on the repetitive parts, and more time writing the human touches. I use Hubspot’s template features, but canned responses are included in gmail. Other options are programs like TextExpander (paid) or Apple Keyboard Shortcuts (free). Automate the mundane to invent the insane.

Kill the Martyr Within

Do you end your day feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing?

Do you let other people’s procrastination or lack of preparation ruin your productivity and/or self esteem?

I did, and did often. Yea I was that guy.

The martyr.

To be a martyr is to cede to the sadomasochistic belief that if you aren’t suffering or punishing yourself, you aren’t pushing the boundaries of what you can create or achieve. The belief that Hemingway needed his drink, Van Gogh his delusions, or that Marissa Mayer really needed to work 130 hours a week at Google.

Instead, I’ve learned to be the trickster that Elizabeth Gilbert talks about in her book Big Magic. I’ve learned to have a little more fun and better control my time and choices. As she so eloquently writes:

“The trickster understands that all this world is temporary, all of it is shifting, all of it is nonsense, all of it is fair game for delight The trickster never dies a grim death in a walk-up tenement while suffering romantically from tuberculous. The trickster doesn’t compete, doesn’t compare, doesn’t beat his head against the wall, doesn’t wrestle demons, doesn’t try to dominate mysteries that were never meant to be dominated in the first place. The trickster just keeps on PLAYING. The trickster is slippery and sly, wry and wise, always looking for the secret door, the hidden stairway, the funhouse mirror, the sideways way of looking at things — and the trickster always endures.”

Keep playing and find the little tricks that make your day that much easier.

Work for a boss that won’t give you the space to try other ways of working?

Try saying this to them: “I love working together. In an aim to be more productive and accomplish more of the company goals, I’ve been trying a new approach to meetings. Would you mind if I try a few things that will make us all get more accomplished in less time and have more fun?”

If after that you still get a bold-faced NO, then maybe you should rethink where you work.

Make Meetings Suck Less

At their best, meetings allow you to feed off the collective energy and intelligence of colleagues to arrive at solutions and thinking you’d never get to alone. At their worst, they are a painful exercise in futility. A business ritual that gives us the excuse to talk about work, without actually doing any.

To make meetings that much more bearable:

  • Try Gamestorming. Throw your routine meeting agenda out for new, more human ways of working. Gamestorming is a mashup of gameplay and work with fresh tools and rules that are sure to push teams toward innovative solutions.
  • Take Kevin Hoffman’s advice on how to have Kick Ass Kickoff Meetings
  • Create Constraints. A meeting needs to have a set finish time (that you actually stick to) and clear-cut rules that will keep it productive and focused on achieving the outcome it was called to address.
  • To hold yourself to your finish time or agenda, use a timer in the room. We use physical timers during our design sprints, but if you prefer digital, E.gg Timer is a simple one to use.

Where to next?

I hope this post inspired you. If you took away even one new thought for how you will do things differently today, please like or share this with one person. Together we’ll help build a more productive, happier workforce that can change the world for the better. The secret to success starts and ends with you.