Everyone I know complains about work/life balance, or being too busy, at least sometimes. Certainly I do it. Given this universal complaint, is the busy feeling part of the inevitable human condition? Or is it, as I will argue, the result of the myths we tell ourselves about our future?
Many blame our connected life style for feeling busy. The office follows you everywhere; it is impossible to disconnect. Others blame the disintegration of the nuclear family. After all, “It Takes a Village,” (whether you mean the original African proverb or the latter book by the same name). Without family help, the burdens of earning a living and raising kids fall entirely on the (often single) parents.
Certainly these changes are real, but as a window into history, Ben Franklin talked about the value of time, as did Gautama Buddha, showing that this problem has been central to human thinking since long before the iPhone.
There are many reasons for busyness. Work and life pressure. I suffer from FOMO – Fear of Missing Out. I want to accept every invitation and go on every adventure. Further, I am like the parable of boiling the frog, where a frog thrown into hot water will jump out, but if we put the frog in cold water and raise the temperature slowly, the frog will not notice and will sit in the water as it boils. I have no idea if this parable is true, but I do know that I do this with my own schedule. My future begins peaceful and empty (cold water), but I slowly accept more and more invitations, driven by FOMO, resulting in packed days. I’ve effectively boiled myself.
So if busyness is universal, how do we combat it? I would argue that it begins with truly knowing what we value, and importantly, what we are willing to give up in order to have more of what we value. I believe most people feel busy, but then focus directly on the myth of how they can “catch up.” They tell themselves that they will catch up and insert some unlikely future time or reason. They will finally get ahead this weekend, or after Project Eternity finishes at work, or after little Timmy’s soccer season ends. Along with the myths about when we will catch up, we also tell ourselves when we will finally relax. The coming week on the beach, summer break, or after the next promotion is when we will finally take a breather.
These stories are lies. Lies we tell ourselves to feel better about the pressure we feel. By convincing ourselves that the water is only temporarily too hot, we determine to sit in it one more week, one more month, one more year.
To have any kind of balance, we have to fight our optimistic beliefs in a magically better future. One tool to combat this is having empathy for our future selves. This means, rather than focusing on the event we might miss, focus on how we will feel when we over commit. We have to consider not how we feel now (the FOMO), but how we will feel when overbooked (the empathy).
We can do this in two ways. The first, called Selective Negligence, was covered by Amazon’s Distinguished Engineer, Brad Porter, several years ago. As you think about your future self, you have to consider what you are being asked to do, told to do, or feel internal pressure to do you can just ignore. The second is by really knowing what you care about most. By looking beyond the feeling of busyness, where most of us stop looking and switch to hoping, and moving on to really choosing how we want to spend our time.
My belief is that most people have spent relatively little time really deciding what is most important to them in life. It isn’t that the list is unusual (job, money, career success, marriage, children, religion, travel) but that in thinking of these things they have not taken the time to really decide which one or two come first, thus allowing others to come behind. As a result, thanks to FOMO, we try to do them all, with the consequence that we end up out of balance. It is hard to “balance” things when you haven’t even really defined what balance is for you personally. In fact, it is hard to talk about balance at all when what you are trying to balance, or juggle as some say, is “everything!”
Further exploration of this final point will be a part of my next talk on The EZ Coach live broadcast, Saturday, April 20, at 6 PM PDT. If you have not, please subscribe to my blog and follow our broadcasts here. You can also past talks on related topics there or on YouTube, so if you are reading this long after April 20 (2019), you can go back and find it.