THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Ban busy: Make tough choices to calm down

Let's abolish the word busy.

When you ask someone, "How have you been?" and they say, "Busy," it doesn't mean anything, and I'm sick of it.

We all have the same 24 hours to fill. The difference is that the "busy" people feel frenetic during those hours. Those of you who walk around telling everyone how busy you are, get a grip. There's a big difference between a busy day and a full day. The former is so frantic that you aren't effective. Don't tell me you can't help it. You can. Here are the steps:  

1. Recognize that a frenetic life is a life half lived. You should aim for "Flow," a concept from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a unique state of mind where productivity and creativity are at their highest. In his wide-ranging study, Csikszentmihalyi shows that Flow generates the grand ideas, phenomenal work, and intense, rewarding experiences that people identify with happiness.  

Flow occurs when you are fully present and engaged in what you're doing, and the concept of time melts away in a commitment to the goal-oriented activity. This feeling requires being occupied and engaged for uninterrupted chunks of your day without ever once thinking that you're rushed for time.

2. Recognize that you are addicted to busy. You like what busy does for you. Busy gives you an excuse for poor performance. Busy gives you a way to ignore parts of your life that are falling apart and need attention. And when what you do makes you feel inadequate– for example, if you're a volunteer, taking care of a parent, meditating, or doing other things that are not valued by society–- busy gives you something to say that society does value.  

Many people mistakenly think that busy means important. But busy really means out of control. A full day means planned and prioritized. A busy day means frenetic and unorganized. Full is fine; it is expected. But important people have full days, not busy days, because important people can't afford to be out of control. 

3. Prioritize. This does not mean making a to-do list. Nor does it mean making a list of career goals. You need to list what you want in life. It should be a short list, because life is short. Don't make a list of dreams; you need to give up your dreams. Not all, but most.  

This is because being an adult means making choices. It means admitting that we cannot do everything, and choosing to devote the time we have to what's most important. By not making choices, you aren't facing the realities of adulthood. By scheduling your days with more things than you can accomplish, you're not taking control of your life. You're letting chance take control. Chance will dictate what gets done.  

4. Say no. Whenever someone asks you to do something, be ready to say no. Your priorities at work, home, and during your personal and networking time should be clear.  

Do not worry that you'll hurt someone's feelings by saying no. To do something well, you must be focused. That takes self-discipline. But when you say yes to please someone, it shows you lack the self discipline to be truly focused. Saying no is a gift to the people and projects that are the priorities in your life.  

You do not automatically have to say yes to everything you're asked to do at work either. Your boss establishes your priorities. If she then gives you work that would compromise those priorities, you can refuse (with an explanation). Sticking to the plan will makes you look smart and committed.

5. Change how you talk. Don't ever again say you're busy. Say you can't bear to give up your dreams, or say that over-scheduling yourself veils your fear of underperformance. You need to say something more honest than busy if you want to connect with people, including yourself.  

When you have done the first four steps, you will no longer be busy. You will have room to be focused and enthralled. Then, when someone says, "How have you been?" you will have something more interesting and engaging to say than "busy."


Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more. She penned this column several years ago, but she's busy with new things–- too busy to write new things.