The trap of unfinished busyness

Do you ever feel overwhelmed? Like there is an avalanche of things to take care of and only a split second to do it?

Abundance is the reality of the developed world. There is an infinite amount of entertainment and information, much of it aimed at our finite minds. It’s not easy to stay on top of it and focus.

I don’t pretend to have a fool-proof solution to the problem of information overload, but I’ve found some tactics that have been helpful to me, and therefore could be helpful to you.

Whack-a-busy

When piles of stuff lie on my desk, hide in the Downloads folder, or in my inbox, it‘s easy to lose concentration and slip into a game of information whack-a-mole. However, just as the original game is enjoyable, its real-world cousin is debilitating and stressful. You are doing things and all the while other things pop up, vying for your attention and energy.

I hate that feeling of creeping madness, so I’ve experimented with ways of avoiding, reducing or eliminating it and here’s what I’ve found: whether the instinct is to approach in a manic rush, or avoid in defense, the best solution is to pause, breathe, and reflect.

The Power of Interlude

In the middle or a theater play, there is a pause. In the middle of a Taekwondo final match, there is a break. Just before a storm, there is calm.

These are all interludes, moments of calm, pauses. They are natural. They enable refreshment and recovery. After a pause, we can jump back into the ring with renewed vigor.

Yet with mountains of tasks looming above, such a natural thing as taking a pause does not appear to be an option.

It is.

I find even 5 minutes of calmly pondering my plight incredibly useful. During the pause, I might do a couple things like:

  • remind myself of my goals

  • recap what I’m trying to do

  • visualize what I need to do or draw it, however badly

  • lie in bed, thinking

  • take a walk

All these activities are a form of taking a break to see clearer. They all include the key activity — thinking. That’s the first tactic, taking a moment to think and reflect on the broader view.

Where to start?

The reflection helps, but often it’s not enough. If I find 5 things that I need to do, which one should I choose?

Recently, I saw too many things that needed to be taken care off around my room. Clothes, stacks of papers, a bowl, a mug, books in the bookshelf, unsorted drawers… As I took that in, it made me unhappy. For about a day and a half, the unhappiness resurfaced again and again. Finally, I just started. I reordered the books in my bookshelf to be grouped by height and color.

It was a trivial task of no great importance by itself. But it was the start. After the bookshelf, I moved on to other things. I aligned the dishes I wanted to keep and put others into the kitchen. I stashed away a couple folders of printed materials I no longer needed. In short, I visibly improved my surroundings.

The key observation to make is that I didn’t make anything perfect. I suspect I could spend many days moving books from one place to another, trying to sort them by the perfect combination of color, volume, height, topic,…

No, what I did do was visibly make progress.

I organized things a bit better, made my environment cleaner, put it more under my control. Not perfect. Perfect for now for me.

The second tactics is this: start somewhere, but START. If the progress you make is visible, it will motivate you to keep going.

Two great enemies of starting

There is couple things that block us from starting. For instance there is the fear of failure, closely followed by fear of regret.

Regret

As Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we tend to regret taking a bad action more than not taking action at all. As a result of this, we don’t want to do things that could be a great source of regret. This can be exploited. For example, an desperate salesperson might say:

“If you don’t take this deal, you will regret it later down the road.”

The fact that we want to avoid regret plays against us, because it can make us complacent, but it can also play for us.

Perspective to the rescue

My tip is adopting the point of view of the salesman, but using it for things that matter to us:

If I don’t do this now, I will regret not doing it 10 years from now.

Jeff Bezos did something similar when considering starting what would become Amazon. He imagined himself old, looking back on his life, and imagined how he would regret not starting a venture of his own at the time. Seems to have worked out well for him.

He calls this the “regret minimization framework”.

This kind of perspective reverses the feeling of regret, and contributes to taking action.

Failure

Another thing that can paralyze us is fear of failure. What if the step I’m about to take is not the right one? What if I fail at it?

Traditional education does a good job of instilling deep into our minds fear of failure and of making mistakes. However, not only it’s human to err, it’s the very foundation of learning. History of people, companies, and countries are riddled with failures and mistakes, which made it possible to come to this point in time.

Wisdom from the Greats

Mistakes will always be there, it’s a folly to try to avoid them. Yet, the fear can persist. That’s why I memorized the following quote to help me:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. -Theodor Roosevelt

It’s not exactly tweet-short, but it serves a purpose.

The tiny start

If quotes or thought exercises don’t help, I have one more suggestion to help you start. Work for just 5 minutes. 5 minutes and that’s it.

Sounds too easy?

It is. With its simplicity, this clever trick can make us start, and once immersed in work, it’s much easier to continue working away.

Conclusion

Tons of unfinished tasks destroy productivity and busyness destroys clarity. To cut through the noise, we need to refocus and then start.

To refocus, take a break.

To start:

  • imagine how your lack of action would cause you to regret it later

  • memorize a helpful quote

  • begin with the easy and controllable

  • work for just 5 minutes

Take a step back and once the path is clear, start.

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