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How to Be Less Busy

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Is it possible to be less busy in a hyper-busy world? The answer is: YES.

But it’s not an easy answer. We are addicted to being busy. Has this ever happened to you:

I met a friend for coffee and she asked, “How’s it going?”

I replied, “It’s busy! I’m good, but really busy.”

She started to laugh and said to me, “When was the last time you weren’t busy?”

Whoa, this question rocked me to my core.

First thought: Do vacations count?

Second thought: I can’t even remember the last time I wasn’t busy.

Third thought: Something has got to change.

Busy is the new normal. We default to being busy.

…and that is no way to live. This interaction led me to read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

If you are in a perpetual state of busy, you have got to change.

If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.

Here’s how to be less busy:

1. The Mindset of an Essentialist

Essentialism is a mindset, it is a way of life and it is a new way to be. Here is an elegant breakdown of a non-essentialist and an essentialist.

A nonessentialist:

  • thinks, “I have to”
  • reacts and says yes without really thinking
  • takes on too much and feels out of control
  • is exhausted and overwhelmed

An essentialist:

  • thinks, “I choose to”
  • executes and says no to everything except the essential
  • gets the right things done and feels in control
  • does great work and experiences joy in the journey

Which mindset are you in right now? Which mindset do you want to be in?

2. Living Regret Free

Before diving into the principles, think about why you are here. McKeown shares the story of an Australian nurse named Bronnie Ware who cared for people at the end of their lives and recorded the regrets most often discussed by patients. She eloquently states that most people express this regret at the end of their life:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Now is your time to re-evaluate. What do you want to achieve in this lifetime? Who are the people you want to spend time with? What are the things you want to do for you? What do you want to prioritize?

Challenge: Write down the 5 things you want to achieve by the end of your life.

This list is what will drive you to be an essentialist. This list will center you and help you say no to the people you don’t want to spend time with. It will help you stop doing the things you don’t want to do and only prioritize what matters.

3. You Have Choice

One of the most powerful pieces of science McKeown shared in the book was on something called learned helplessness. Martin Seligman and Steve Maier did an experiment with German shepherd dogs.

“Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. Dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and given the same lever and the same shock with one catch. The lever didn’t work, rendering the dogs powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks. Afterwards each dog was placed in a large box with a divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock while the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. The dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not step over the divider. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks–they had learned helplessness.”

This experiment is powerful because it shows us that we forget we have choice. We forget we have the power to change. We forget we are able to say no.

Challenge: What are 3 things you say yes to without even thinking? Think of the activities and people in your life. Remember that you have choice. Do you still choose all of these activities and people to be in your life?

4. The Hell Yeah Filter

If you had to summarize Essentialism, it can be done in this headline:

No more yes. It’s either HELL YEAH! or No

I call this the Hell Yeah Principle. It is incredibly difficult to implement, but it is a profound guiding principle and worth every ounce of effort. Why? It means living with extreme purpose and gusto. No more maybe, no more meh, no more half-assed tries. You either do it and love it, or don’t do it at all. Can you live by the Hell Yeah Filter?

Challenge: Write “It’s either HELL YEAH! or No” on a post-it note next to your computer. When responding to emails, taking calls and making your to-do lists, run everything through the Hell Yeah filter on this note. Don’t do anything that doesn’t pass.

5. Right Now

My favorite thing to do at Science of People is to take big concepts and to break them down into practical tasks. If you want to be less busy, here are the 3 things you should do right now based on the Essentialist philosophy:

  1. Write down your one goal for the month. This is your clarity of purpose. What is the one thing you want to do really well in the next month?
  2. Now, look at your to-do list and cut it in half. That’s right. Remove all of the things that are ‘nice to do’ not ‘need to do’ for you to achieve your goal.
  3. Look at your calendar for the next month and remove 5 events, calls and meetings that are non-essential for your goal.

Mark your calendar to do this on the first day of every month.

Remember, busy doesn’t have to be your default. Be an essentialist and choose time over busy.

5 thoughts on “How to Be Less Busy”

  1. I just finished this book last month. Awesome. An eye opener for someone who thought they were an essentialist. The minute I finished the audio book I stopped what I was doing and went and played bubbles with my girls.

  2. Great suggestions; quick question: Does Vanessa Van Edwards have children? And if so, does she have a nanny or other professional to help handle her mothering duties? In the real world of mothers working outside the home 40 hours a week, her ideas are much easier said than done. I have someone come clean my house twice a month and enlist the help of my three sons (age 16 and 10-year-old twins) and husband as much as possible, but you’d be amazed at how long that “essentials” list gets when raising children – and how frequently it changes on a dime (re: illness and “life” in general).

    1. Danielle McRae

      Hey there! Vanessa does not have children. I recommend trying 1 or 2 of these suggestions at a time and see what works best. It will vary for everyone, especially based on lifestyle, work type and if you have children!

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