How Did You Get So Busy?

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October 2, 2008 by Valorie Burton 

Keys to reclaiming your schedule and reconnecting with what matters most.

“How was lunch today?” I asked my coaching client Patricia during a late afternoon session. She hesitated for a few seconds. “I haven’t even eaten yet,” she admitted. “I’ve been going nonstop since I walked into the office this morning.”

Although she was about to get off from work, her work for the day wasn’t finished. She needed to pick up her son, run a couple of errands, cook dinner, check homework and write the fundraising letter she volunteered for a project at her son’s school—oh, and hopefully squeeze in some quality time with her husband before the night was over.

She initially wanted coaching to advance her career, but she was starting to realize what she really wanted was a better quality of life and space to breathe. A successful bank vice president in Chicago, mother of a 5-year-old, and wife, Patricia is a poster child for “having it all.” But the constant pressure to prove herself at work and be the perfect mom and wife were taking their toll on her health and happiness. The simple question, “How was lunch today?” became a catalyst for self-reflection and a journey toward reclaiming her schedule and her life.

In a survey of more than 350 women for my book How Did I Get So Busy?, 76 percent admitted they are busier than they were five years ago. Nearly 60 percent said they hadn’t taken a seven-day vacation in over a year, and more than half haven’t had a friend to their home in more than two months. Can you relate?

Busyness is often based in fear—that you won’t keep up, of what others will think, of failure. My fear was if I wasn’t busy, I was somehow not important. We wear our busyness like a badge of honor: “How are you?” we are asked. “Oh, I’m so busy,” we instinctively reply. In other words, “I’m important. People need me.” You must push through such fears, though, if you want to live life at a pace that empowers you to reconnect with what matters most.

What are the signs of authentic success for you? Write them down. Make your definition personally meaningful and easily measurable. For example, “I know I’ve had a successful week when I was productive at work but left the office on time, enjoyed a date with my spouse, took time to exercise at least three times and spent time doing something I love with people I care about.”

As Patricia discovered on her journey and I discovered on mine, the key is to be intentional in your everyday thoughts and actions. Consider these time-tested steps to reclaim your schedule and reconnect with what matters most.

1. Shift your expectations.
Redefine success on a personal level. “All” for one woman is too much for another. You can have it all, but you don’t have to have it all at the same time. Learn to make schedule adjustments based on what most needs your attention rather than attempting to equally balance every activity. Get clear about what is a priority at this stage of your life and take a more relaxed approach to the rest.

2. Establish your non-negotiables.
Eating, sleeping, quality time with your spouse or children— some things on your schedule shouldn’t leave room for negotiation. When you allow these things to be squeezed out, the consequences can be devastating. Decide what is nonnegotiable for you. Then plan the rest of your life around it.

3. Ask for help.
In years of coaching women, I’ve noticed that too many try to go it alone. They don’t ask for help, either out of fear they won’t get it or that others won’t do what they want done as well as they do it. One of the keys to happiness is having a support system and sense of community. What do you need help with? Perhaps it’s the laundry or the cooking, a project at work or picking up the kids from school. Go through each of your to-do’s and ask, “Who could help me with this?”

4. Don’t be a maximizer.
Dr. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, says the abundance of
choice in today’s culture robs us of satisfaction. To free up time and mental energy, limit your choices throughout the day. Rather than perfecting every decision (what clothes to wear, what to eat, which gadget to buy), establish your minimum standard and then choose the first option that meets your standard. It’s called being a “satisficer” and it’s the opposite of being a “maximizer”—someone who agonizes over every decision to find the perfect choice.

5. Promise little, if anything at all.
Next time someone asks for something, be intentional about not creating pressure by promising what you cannot deliver. “I’ll do it by Friday morning” may be too much. “I’ll do it by next week” gives you wiggle room.

6. Create “fun goals.”
Positive emotion does more than make you happy. It actually expands your capacity to handle adversity, gives you energy and makes you physically healthier. Set “fun goals”—activities that exist for pure joy. Whether it’s a game you play, a fun hobby or an adventure you want to embark on, make sure your goals aren’t all serious. It’s the fun goals that just may give you the extra energy to reach the serious ones. Remember, change is a process, so don’t beat yourself up if you don’t reclaim your schedule all at once. Start small, but start now by practicing at least one of these principles this week. Over time, your thinking will shift and your everyday actions will follow.

*Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.

Life coach Valorie Burton is the author of five books, including her latest, How Did I Get So Busy? The 28-Day Plan to Free Your Time, Reclaim Your Schedule and Reconnect with What Matters Most (Broadway).

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