Ask anyone you know how they are, and their likely response: “Busy!” I’ve been guilty myself.
We talk about slaying the inbox dragon and achieving “inbox zero” (which is a terrible objective, incidentally, but that’s a different discussion). We scramble for the latest productivity apps, shortcuts, or new-shiny methods, lamenting how over-communicated and over-connected we are all the time and hungry for something, anything to help us feel less overwhelmed. We tweet about it and Facebook about it, sharing our busy with everyone so they know we’re doing a lot of stuff.
To an extent our overwhelm is a product of our environment, but mostly it’s a monster of our own making. Too often, what we’re really doing is focusing on our “busyness” because we feel desperately powerless over the actual things we need to achieve or get done, or we’ve no idea where to start and we think that being more “efficient” is the answer.
So we focus on our email system or our to-do list applications or we convince ourselves that our problem is that we simply don’t say “no” enough and rally around the idea that dammit, our time is just too valuable so we have to have a better system to manage it.
The more likely reality – and I know this has been true for me, so I’m hardly speaking from a place of immunity here – is that we are convincing ourselves of our own “busyness” because we lack clarity of focus and priorities, and we’ve been utterly unwilling to sit down and gut through the thought processes – and reality checks – we need to whittle them down and articulate them. We’re even more unwilling to hold ourselves accountable for our progress on a regular basis, however incremental.
So we spend way too much time thinking about the mechanisms and processes of “being productive” and not nearly enough time doing the things that are actually producing anything of substance at all.
Productivity exercises can become hamster-wheel traps that make you feel like you’re making progress, but in reality are endless busy work roads to nowhere. At a certain point, the time you spend testing umpteen new apps or shuffling around your Evernote folders or re-organizing your Gmail labels and reading countless life-hacking posts becomes an exercise in diminishing returns, though a very easy way to fool yourself into thinking you’re doing something to improve your game.
But the only way to really improve your game is to play, not to plan to play.
I can’t give you the “right” system and balance because there isn’t one. Myself, I’m a purist. I use a scant few applications (Evernote, Gmail, Google Docs), keep my to-do list on a piece of paper, and have a pretty stripped-down system of managing things and priorities on my own plate. Maybe you need or want more than that. That’s okay.
Regardless of where you end up, I can give you the most important question you can ask yourself about this stuff to keep it all in check:
“Is this actually helping me become significantly more effective in my work – now or for the long term – or am I focusing too much on building the system instead of nailing the outcome?”
Be honest with yourself. The only person that will know the truth is you, and you don’t have to tell.
But I promise that your answer is going to be enlightening.