I solved “too busy” by asking myself one question
I’m not going to make you work for the answer. The question is “What am I hiding from?” Asking myself that question was my first step from mediocre work to higher-quality, deeply satisfying work. Here’s how it worked for me.
About a year ago, I joined an accountability group. We set goals and met weekly for a four-week sprint. I got a little work done, but it was mostly meh. This happened two more times. I could feel my potential but I couldn’t get anywhere near to reaching it. Out of desperation, I spent my fourth sprint digging into what was going on. You can read more about that here.
One of the gems that came out of that journey of self-exploration was that I didn’t understand how to estimate my time and nor did I have enough of it for the huge number of projects on my plate. I was too busy.
First, I asked myself how I got to be so busy. I got to be so busy by saying yes to every project that came my way, whether it was an ask from someone else or a new idea of my own.
Then I asked, why do I say yes to every project? Because playing with new ideas and swimming in fantasies of their potential success is intoxicating. They also come with some ego strokes of being included and being that person who can do everything.
Luckily for me, I was generally competent and no one was watching my performance that closely. But I knew my industry and tracked my metrics. I knew I wasn’t meeting my potential. I spent every day carrying around this secret shame.
Finally I asked, “What am I hiding from by immersing myself in busy?”
That one was harder to answer, but it was a life changer.
Doing Less and Doing It Better
When I don’t know the answer to something, I usually like to experiment and see what I can learn from screwing it up. So, I decided to do less and do it better.
When I started to say no to projects, I felt deep resistance. That’s when you know to lean in. Unpleasant feelings always hold the best lessons. I returned to the question: What am I hiding from by immersing myself in busy?
Three big insights bubbled up over time and many happy hour conversations.
- I am an obliger and I want to say YES to everyone. It’s part of my identity and why I felt many people liked me.
- We can always blame being busy as an excuse for not producing amazing work. What if I let go of busy and still do not produce amazing work? What if I discover I really am mediocre with some of my work? (Spoiler alert — that absolutely happened.)
- I work in a company that has a culture of busy that functions inside a country that has a culture of busy. What happens when I’m the only one who is not busy? Will they think I’m lazy?
Doing quality work is a deep value of mine. And, lucky for me, I was so miserable about my mediocre work that it drove my courage to keep saying no despite these fears.
Four lessons from saying no to busy and yes to productivity
Right off the bat I learned that this change requires you to embrace the unpleasant feeling of mourning. I mourned having to say no to people I cared about. I mourned the change of my identity as someone you could go to for any project. I especially mourned the fact that I had to let beautiful ideas go.
Life is finite. I am no longer a 20-year-old full of amazing potential. I’m in my 40s and many, many doors are now closed to me. Here I am, voluntarily closing more. This borders on facing my existential fear of death for heaven’s sake!
That was the bad news. Here’s the good news.
I uncovered that most people like me for my sense of humor and non-judgmental attitude, not because I say yes to everything. Whew!
Just because I’m not “busy” doesn’t mean I’m not putting in the same hours as everyone else. No one has said a word to me about my output or work ethic. I have seen an increase in compliments about my friendliness and positive attitude though. I am less stressed out and it shows. That leads to the most important lesson.
I’m a better person when I’m less stressed out. I like myself more. This might be an obvious conclusion but feeling it is so much different than knowing it’s a fact.
What to do when faced with your own mediocrity
I know I’ve already taken you on a journey to face our existential fear of death. So, I know you can handle a little more bad news. One of my fears came true.
I learned that I was indeed mediocre at one of my main work tasks. I was competent, but even when I dedicated more time and made it a priority, my metrics did not improve. Part of this was an incorrect strategy that I did identify and change. A bigger part of it was that I really did not like executing the work and would end up rushing through it or procrastinating.
This brings me to my final lesson. If you’re going to do the heavy lifting of letting go of busy and all the protection it offers, then you must take shelter in doing work you care about.
Intrinsically motivated work is when you love the process of doing the work. You enter the state of Flow and time ceases to exist. If no one saw your work you would still enjoy doing it and be proud of it. Extrinsically motivated work is “have to” and “should” work.
Choose work that is intrinsically motivated and matches your deeply held values
Into ever job a little “should” will fall. Be competent at that work. Then move on to your intrinsic work and be excellent.
I have done this for the most part and it has paid off.
Today, I do less and do it better. I don’t allow myself more than 3–4 projects at any one time. I have not been fired for saying no and in fact, have started to receive recognition for my work on my passion projects. I have been accepted to speak again at one of my industry’s big conferences, I’ve been published in one of our market’s most-read publications and one of my side project collaborations got picked up by none other than Seth Godin.
It hasn’t been all rainbows and fairy tales, but it has been SO much more fun. As nice as the gold stars are, the best outcome of all of this is how much more I enjoy being me when I get to do work I care about.
Now it’s your turn. What are you hiding from? What would have to happen for you to say your first no? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.