“To do two things at once is to do neither.”
That was apparently the view of Latin writer Publilius Syrus, who lived in the early middle ages. If only he knew what it was like to be too busy: to have 40+ hour work weeks, a side gig, iPhone notifications going off like crazy, a social life, and oh yeah, trying to also get enough sleep to function.
Some of us thrive when we are really busy — too busy, even — and then there is the rest of us who are mildly freaking out, but still holding it together when the calendar fills up and tasks still keep piling on.
I’d like to think that Publilius Syrus was like most of us, trying to find ways to keep from being overwhelmed by being too busy. His solution, doing one task at a time, may work for some, but for others, even thinking about only doing one task at a time is stressful enough. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.
But is multitasking the only answer? Or is there a way to work smarter?
Analyze your tasks
Avoiding being really busy is really hard, especially when your busy-ness comes from outside sources like a demanding work environment or busy family life. But if you find yourself over-and-over again feeling stressed out about being too busy, it’s probably time to ask yourself some questions about why.
- Do you enjoy being this level of busy?
- Would you feel equally fulfilled if you weren’t this busy?
- Are there ways to better manage your tasks?
- Is there a natural order of priority of the things you have on your plate? Do you feel able to follow that order?
- Are you taking on too many projects?
- When was the last time you said no? Why did you say no that time?
Perhaps it’s just that timing has been especially bad but will soon let up, or that you’ve agreed to take on one too many projects. Being honest — first with yourself — about what you can truly handle is significant.
Identifying the source of being too busy is really important in understanding how to best tackle it. Are there certain tasks in your life that perpetually make you feel overwhelmed and too busy, like managing your household duties or keeping up with social obligations? Are there certain sources of tasks (like a boss) that come at an impossible-to-accomplish rate?The answer might not be to eliminate as many tasks as you can from all areas of life, but to figure out how to manage in one specific area where overwhelm is consistently coming from.
Find a way to start
It’s easy to find yourself so busy that even figuring out a place to start from is difficult. What do you do when you have three deadlines to meet, 20 emails to send, plus meetings to attend all on top of life outside of work or school?
The answer is annoyingly simple:
Just start. Anywhere. Any forward movement can be motivating enough to sort through the rest of the tasks. Making a broad, general to-do list can help organize your thoughts and give you a boost in getting the motivation to tackle everything.
We like to recommend setting a timer for 10-15 minutes. Tell yourself you only have to work for 10-15 minutes. If the timer goes off, you can stop. This works because most of the time, 10-15 minutes is all you need to reach a little bit of flow that makes it easy to keep going.
Your work may start with grouping things together. Are you busy with work life, personal stuff, or a mixture of both? For those of us who tend to keep work life and private life separate, it helps to compartmentalize. If you know that one event or task is going to affect the other, spend time figuring out the best way to handle them and in which order to get the most out of everything.
For example, practice reaching a comfortable stopping place with work before heading out to a networking event or meeting friends for dinner. If it helps, you can write out the remaining steps on a to-do list for tomorrow. You will then be able to focus on what’s in front of you, without being worried about the progress of something else, which will help reduce the overwhelmed “too busy” feeling.
Set up systems that support high output
Multitasking is actually quite difficult for the human brain to achieve because we’re wired to think about one thing at a time. So instead of trying to multitask to do a million things at once, try setting up systems that work like multitasking — by supporting many things getting done — but that work with your natural inclination to focus on one task. You’ll do better work but get more of it done.
Consider these when you get down to business and start taking on multiple things at once:
- Allow some extra time. If you think a task will take an hour, block off an hour and a half in your calendar. If you end up finishing early, you have bonus time — but often, things take longer than we think they will and this way, you won’t be falling behind before you even start.
- Consider alternating tasks every hour or two to keep your mind fresh, if it’s not deep work. For example, switch between working on slides for a presentation and reading a report for an upcoming meeting.
- Set goals. This way you have a clear path forward that ensures you’re working on the most important work (not just the work calling out to you the loudest).
- Look for shortcuts. Don’t think of this as cutting corners, but working smarter. Like catching up on emails while waiting for an appointment.
- Match similar or complementary tasks, so your brain can easily complete many things in a row without having to switch “modes”.
Avoid procrastination and precrastination
There’s a delicate balance in a too-busy life. You don’t want to put too many things off, but it’s just as easy to take everything on at once and feel like all deadlines are extremely urgent, even when they aren’t.
It’s important to keep things in check by paying close attention to deadlines, building buffers into your schedule, and being real about priorities. Be mindful of whether your deadline is rapidly approaching or if you actually have time to set a task aside and focus on other work. That can help combat both time crunches.
A few easy ways to avoid both procrastination and precrastination is to keep a schedule, regularly re-evaluate what you have on your plate, and adjust accordingly. Realize that nothing is set in stone and priorities change, and that is okay! Embracing some fluidity (where you can) makes being really busy a little bit easier.
We recommend doing a planning session at least once a week, to check in on what work needs to be done and where priorities may have changed. It might surprise you just how much can change in a few days, so being willing to readjust your plans will help you be as effective as possible in the least amount of time.
Delegate where you can
What are the things that are keeping you busy and are they you’re responsibility? Maybe you feel the need to take on more at work because it feels more efficient. But is it? Look at the tasks that are directly tied to your responsibilities. If you can reasonably offload some tasks, let go and let somebody else do the work.
It can be so easy to feel like the weight of an entire project is on our shoulders, but taking a step back reveals that it’s not really. Not everything has to be done by you — in fact, it can often be done better by someone else (especially if they’re not as busy as you and can focus more energy on the work).
If you’re a manager, you can delegate to people on your team. This is actually a great way to help people level up their skills. If you’re not a manager, you can still ask for help from peers or see if outsourcing a simple task to a contractor is possible.
If delegation is possible, it doesn’t mean the work is completely off your plate — it is still your responsibility. However, here’s how to make it as efficient as you can:
- Communicate clearly. This means also checking in for updates and providing enough details so the task is completed.
- Leave the door open for questions. Don’t leave the person high and dry; they’ll do better work, faster, with your guidance.
- Remember to be understanding and try to balance your involvement. If it’s something where you can be completely hands off, do that. But don’t assume that will be the case for everything you are able to delegate.
Don’t forget you can delegate things in your personal life too. If cleaning your apartment every weekend stresses you out and ruins your relaxation time, see if paying for a cleaning service might be worth the cost. There are a lot of tasks that can be done for less money than you think, and save you a ton of time and worry.
When it’s all said and done, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You will complete the to-do list. Deadlines will pass. You’ll get through it. And when you get there, remember to take a moment to honor your hard work.
When you feel too busy all the time, it’s time to make a change to some of the systems in your life. Delegate, set goals, reframe priorities.
It’s also important to reflect on the busy periods and think about what worked really well and what didn’t. Think about what kind of things you did that could be done faster or doubled up with another task. It isn’t always easy to see the obvious when life is happening fast, but taking a breath to think through it may make the next time you are too busy much easier.