How I Learned to Get a Lot Done Without Being Busy
I’ve got a confession: I’m not busy.
Yes, I have three kids, I’m running a business, I create and post a new podcast episode at least once a week, I write 7–10 articles per week, I travel and speak on average twice a month, I’m committed to doing one form of exercise every day and reading a book every week.
Yet I still have plenty of time. I play with my kids regularly. We spend most weekends relaxing or hitting the beach and eat dinner together almost every weekday. I walk outside or meditate with frequency, listen to podcasts, write and play music, watch movies and sports, hang out with my wife, and almost never get less than eight hours of sleep. I almost always have time for a philosophical chat, NBA or NFL gossip, or a review of some marketing copy for a friend. Most of all, I rarely feel rushed or pressed time-wise.
There is nothing magical about me. I do not have particularly high aptitudes or abilities, and it’s not always been like this. Not even close. There are a few practices and mindsets that allow me to feel like I have plenty of hours each day, and it’s taken me a long time to get consistently good at them. I attribute more of my happiness and whatever success I’ve had thus far to these traits than to any particular skill or knowledge.
Be really honest
It took me a long, long time to admit that I hate being busy. From my mid teens to mid-late twenties I was busy nearly every hour of the day. I slept 5–6 hours a night, spent ridiculous amounts of time and energy juggling activities and in transit between commitments, and had so many side projects and house projects and work projects that I rarely had time to just go for a walk and think or read for more than ten minutes at a time. I was proud of myself for being able to do so much. There is something to the fact that the more you do the more you’re able to do, but I was never really at peace with it. I wanted to be one of those people who live for the rush and never slow down, so I adopted (or rather didn’t resist) that lifestyle. But it was never me. The sooner I came to terms with that bit of self-knowledge and stopped feeling bad about it, the easier it became to begin the process of unbusying myself.
I know some people genuinely love being busy and can’t get in the zone without that rushed feeling. My brother is that type of person. I used to wish I could keep up, but I’m much happier being the best version of my unique self, instead of a weak version of people like him. If that’s you, be you. Do that. Find out the best hacks and tricks for fulfillment in constant action. This advice won’t do you much good. But if it’s not you, be honest about it.
I finally gave myself permission to say it: I hate being busy. I need lots of free time. I need chunks of time to speculate and create and play. Busyness diminished my quality of life. Dig deep and discover if it works for you or not and be honest about what you find.
Find people who are better than you
I’m very competitive (some may say also arrogant) and my gut tells me any new thing I do I should be able to do it better than everyone else pretty quickly. It can be fun and motivating, but it’s a huge time-suck. Trying to be good at things that aren’t even in my wheelhouse is a recipe for stress. In fact, I’m not a specialist at anything, and I stopped trying to be. I do what I have to, but immediately try to find a way to outsource all non-core tasks, whether work-related or personal, as quickly as I can. I used to take pride in mowing my own lawn. I didn’t enjoy it and that was a few hours each week that I simply did not need to be burning or stressing in anticipation of wasting. It’s not expensive to outsource small things like that, and the sooner I learned to swallow my pride and do it, the better life became.
Sometimes it doesn’t take money at all. There are people all around who can do things better than you can. Find them. Ask them. Work with them. Trade with them. Don’t do it unless you’re really the only one who can do it.
Be a ruthless minimalist
My motto is “delete, shred, destroy”. I have a strict inbox zero policy. Every piece of mail, digital or physical, I immediately review. I look for excuses to throw things away rather than reasons to keep them. I take action immediately. I pay bills the minute I get them whenever possible and throw away or delete the envelope. I take a photo of business lunch receipts, email them to myself, then throw away the paper and delete the photo off my phone all while still waiting in line to get my order. Every few months I throw away a few old T-shirts, magazines, broken toys, or other odds and ends that accumulate in a house. I find that handling all the small things as they come leaves me with very few times when I have to plow through giant piles of fluff. I check emails and texts and Voxer messages all throughout the day, every day, weekend and vacation included (with rare exceptions), because it only takes minutes and it can save the entire first productive hour of the next day.
I block off chunks of time here and there when I need to go into full maker mode and don’t respond to things instantly, but when the inbox is at zero to start with, it’s not too bad to catch up after a few hours off. I avoid meetings and phone calls whenever an email can handle it.
Never do things you don’t like doing
“No” is my favorite word. It took me a while to learn to say it as much as I do now. I like people and I like to see them happy and I’m interested in lots of things. But if I say yes to every cool idea or conversation or project or event that comes my way, I’m a guilt-wracked wreck. It’s more disrespectful to say yes when you don’t really mean it than to say no. No is harder in the moment, but it sure does pay off.
If it’s not a big, enthusiastic yes, make it a no. One of my goals is every day to ask myself what things I’m doing that I don’t like doing. Identify them. Then ask how I can begin to work to not do those things any longer. It’s amazing how many layers of subtle pressure, guilt, manipulation, expectation, and people-pleasing our desires are wrapped up in. Unwrapping this mess and getting to the core — the real you, with your real, unique desires — is tough work, and requires a lot of ‘no’ along the way. I don’t think you can get to a peaceful, well-paced, low-stress life by trying to imagine what it would look like and plot a path to it. In my experience, the only way to come close is to start from the other end. Identify the pain points one at a time and work to eliminate and preemptively avoid them. Whatever is left over is the good stuff.
Utilize your subconscious
I think about my work all the time. In the shower, laying in bed before I fall asleep, while on a walk, in traffic, and almost everywhere else unless I specifically decide to put it on hold. The advantage to this is that by the time I sit down to get cranking away, the bulk of the hard work is done. Whether an email response, a presentation, a phone call, a decision about a vendor, or a meeting with an employee, by the time it happens I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it while doing other activities. The thing that makes this especially effective is the power of the subconscious. Wrestling with ideas consciously triggers your subconscious mind. When you are distracted, or sleeping, or too tired to consciously focus on them anymore, they’re still bouncing around in there. By the time you need to call them to the front of your mind again, often problems get solved and ideas get improved as they spend time doing whatever magic your brain does to them with a little time.
Some people consider it work to think about work. I don’t. But regardless, utilizing some down time to tackle work problems mentally and queuing up your subconscious to tackle them as well will result in getting things done quicker and better when it’s time to work.
Don’t move too quickly at first
If you love the rush, stick with it. If you’re not sure yet whether you love the rush, doing too much is better at first than doing too little. Early in the game if you limit your experiences and opportunities too much you’ll have a very hard time with self-discovery. Take the plunge early on, err on the side of lots of activities, and with each step review which ones make you come alive with the good kind of challenge and which are just flabby, useless, or worse yet, detrimental to your well-being. You need some material to work with before you begin chipping away.
I don’t recommend saying no to great opportunities that are open questions when you’re young, and definitely don’t use my advice above as an excuse to avoid things that stretch you. But if you know from experience you don’t do well with busyness and you’re constantly bogged down with things you hate, begin the process now. Find ways to open up free time. Be ruthless. Your future self will thank you.
Isaac Morehouse has tried just about every form of education and has spent years building and running educational programs and mentoring students. Throughout his work in nonprofits, teaching, writing, and training, he’s seen diminishing returns from traditional education and career preparation models. Tired of imagining what other options might look like, he decided to break the mold and launch Praxis, a ten month program for young people who want to think like and become entrepreneurs.
Originally published at isaacmorehouse.com on June 17, 2015.