Sometimes the simplest ideas really stick out.
This was particularly true for me when I read Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Workweek. I pulled a bunch of good ideas from his book, but one in particular that stands above the rest is this: a lack of time is a lack of priorities.
I think this idea has improved my life over the last few years more than any other tidbit of productivity or life hacking advice.
Most often, a lack of time—time pressures, rushing, scrambling to finish things, busyness—is simply a lack of priorities. We can choose to spend our time differently, on the things that are more important, and ditch the things that aren’t, thereby freeing up our time and energy.
We choose to be busy or rushed, and we can choose otherwise.
Smart vs. Lazy
Many people are strongly averse to this idea, thinking a lack of busyness equates to laziness.
I’m with Tim on this one. Being busy isn’t an inherently bad thing. Sometimes I choose to be busy, because a lot of things are important to me and I want to get them all done. Sometimes I like being busy because I love what I’m working on and I’m getting a lot done.
But most of the time we can simply choose to not be busy. Yes, this means less important things won’t get done, gasp! But… if they’re less important, who cares? This isn’t lazy, this is smart.
Problems with busyness arise when we feel like victims. “Gawd, if only I wasn’t so busy I would do xyz instead.” But, if it’s actually more important, why not do that instead. And if it’s not as important, stop stressing over not doing it!
Would you rather complete less important things and be busy and stressed all the time, or would you rather focus on what’s important, not caring for the unimportant, and having a more relaxing and less stressed life?
I’m sure Tim isn’t the first person to have this insight, but he was the first one to tell me about it in such a “slap-in-the-face-and-pay-attention!” sorta way.
It’s a surprisingly simple idea. It’s also surprisingly difficult to live in practice.
Importance vs. Urgency
It’s easy to confuse importance with urgency. That rush job that’s stressing everyone out? Sure, it’s due tomorrow—it’s urgent. But is it important? Would time be better spent on something else? Should you just drop it and do your taxes instead?
Urgency is useful for picking between important tasks, but ultimately the importance of a task is much more… important… than anything else.
Knowing Your Priorities
Without a clear sense of priorities you’ll have difficulties deciding where to best spend your time and energy.
If you don’t know your priorities it’s probably worth your time to sit down and think about it. You’d be amazed what you can come up with in just five minutes of conscious effort.
From “Must Do” to “Choose To”
There is nothing in the world that we truly must do. We can choose to do or not do just about anything.1 Take wearing clothes in public. It sure feels like you have to do it—and if you’re like me you want to do it too—but you don’t actually have to.
I found this idea very hard to internalize at first.
Let’s say you feel that you have to complete an important assignment. If I say, “You don’t have to do it, you can choose to do it or not,” you’ll probably think, “Okay, that’s true… but it still feels like I have to do it!”
This can be so deeply engrained in your psyche that it will take a long time to fix. I’m not entirely sure what helped me move away from “must” thinking to “choice” thinking; it’s been such a gradual change over time.
Being aware of the distinction is probably the place to start. If you can constantly remind yourself that you choose to do the things that you do, you’ll slowly shift away from “must” thinking.
One consequence of shifting to “choose” thinking is the sudden burden of responsibility. If you’re not ready to accept that how you spend your time, and how you set your priorities, is ultimately your own responsibility, you’ll never escape the busyness trap.
Over the last few years I’ve slowly improved my ability to notice that feeling of “If only I had more time!” or “I have too much to do!”
Whenever I catch myself reasoning along these lines I think, “Wait! I don’t have to be busy. What’s important here? What’s not? What else could I be doing with my time?” etc.
In other words: Pause. Reassess. Decide. Relax.
This has come in handy more times than I can count.
Note that I don’t always end up stress-free and relaxed. Many times I’ve consciously decided that I still want to do everything on my plate, even though I know I’ll be busy and probably burnt out by the end of it.
But at least I chose to do it that way, which makes the busyness much easier to bear.
You have all the time in the world to do what’s important.
Don’t have the time? Then drop something else to make the time.
Or, accept that it’s not important enough and move on.
Or, accept that you’ll voluntarily be busy for the next little while; that it’s a choice, not a burden.
- Except when our automatic System 1 does things that our “conscious” System 2 can’t control or override. [↩]