People are busy. Even stronger: people like to be busy. We take pride in being busy and we see it as a brand and an approach to happiness. However, the body and the brain are not designed to be always ‘on’. The body is designed for switching between active and passive states; to fire up into an adrenaline‐fueled, alert state , and then cool down to a calmer one.
The aim of this book is to move beyond busy, towards a sustained, focused attention. This is to be found in the way we use our attention, not time; in how we think, not produce; and in how we engage, not acquire.
2. The Key Ideas
SECTION 1: MASTERY
The first element to moving beyond busy is mastery. This means that we should shift our focus from managing time to managing attention. It starts with the willingness to let go of our need for control and negotiating our life back.
Stop managing your time
According to Tony Crabbe, time management isn’t really helping anymore. Three elements to defend this idea are the following:
- Time management will not make you regain control: No matter how organized you are, you will not be able to time‐manage your way back to control. There is simply too much to do: the quantity of information, communication and expectation have become too high.
- Time management will not make you happier: the gained efficiency from time‐management might allow you to squeeze more things into less time; however: it leads to fractured attention. The heightened focus on filling our time can make us less satisfied with our lives, more stressed.
- Time management will not make you more effective: the more we manage our time, the more we become aware of time. This often leads to a sense of time‐pressure. It has been scientifically proven that this sense of time pressure reduces performance.
So how do we move towards mastery?
- Letting go of the desire to be in control: the quantity of information, communication and demand are entirely beyond one’s control. You are not to blame for ‘too much’, so you should let go of your guilt for not doing it all. It’s not your fault.
- Accept imperfection: Both men and women often devote too much time and energy to maintaining the appearance of perfection. This is deeply unhelpful. Self‐esteem and confidence do not come from being perfect, but accepting our imperfection.
- Forget the inputs, focus on the outputs: ‘Inputs’ refer to all the stuff that is coming your way in the form of tasks, information (mails, etc.) and expectations. ‘Outputs’, on the other hand, are the things you actually do. Many of us find our outputs are driven by inputs. Mastery is found in what we CHOOSE to do – our outputs – not from our inputs.Side note: if we want to change our behaviour sustainably, the place to start might not be changing our beliefs but changing behaviour. This changing behaviour will change your beliefs. This can be linked to a psychological term called cognitive dissonance: our desire for consistency between our beliefs and actions. The best part is that, if we consistently act in a way that is NOT in line with our beliefs, cognitive dissonance shifts our beliefs to align with our actions.
Building a sense of mastery comes down to two main elements:
- Breaking the stimulus‐response cycle: we can rationally choose an alternative response to the immediate emotional one.
- Flip seriousness into playfulness: a state of busyness comes from being too serious. We actually have two opposing motivational states, which drive how we respond to situations and experiences. The states are ‘seriousness’ and ‘playfulness’. The reversal theory states that we can easily fluctuate between these states. Sometimes, we have to change our motivational state to have more fun, be more creative and engage people better.
A lot of people are like the Siamese fighting fish, mindlessly consuming what’s in front of them. If you keep feeding the fighting fish, they will literally eat themselves to death. The same with human beings: we see emails, texts, voice mails or any other kind of stimulation and we consume them. We don’t seem to realize when enough is enough. Therefore, we have to make tough choices. Busyness could be seen as the easy, ‘mindless’ choice.
According to Tony Crabbe, we have to beat the mindlessness, which is prominent in our daily behaviour. Our brains typically consist of two systems for decision‐making: System 1 is fast, automatic and unconscious; System 2 is slow, effortful and conscious. Because our mind is highly characterized by energy conservation, only about 2% of all mental activity is effortful and conscious. As a result, most of our choices are made on autopilot, mindlessly drifting to toxic levels of consumption and activity. Our ‘busyness’ therefore, is often irrational, driven by the default condition or social norms.
Busy is the easy choice. We too often make the choice of ‘whether or not’, rather than the ‘which’ choice. These ‘whether or not’ choices are dangerous in the case of busyness , since they are too likely to lead to a ‘yes’ decision. Good decisions take energy; we have only so much mental energy to go around. When our brain gets tired, we begin to avoid decisions altogether or make the easier choice. This is called ego depletion. ‘Which’ decisions are demanding on the brain and so are most effectively done when the brain is fresh, normally first thing in the morning. So each morning, take the time to think about which tasks will deliver the most value and focus on them, before you get into that rollercoaster of activity.
In general, we are not good at spotting when enough is enough, so we need to be more aware of the early warning signals of approaching overwhelm. Set clear boundaries and focus only on what you really want.
Learn to manage your attention
The multiple sources of information, stimulation and demand hitting our brains today scatter our attention horribly. Attention management has become far more important than time management: our ability to be fully present in the moment is our most rewarding capability, allowing us to find real joy.
So… How do we manage our attention?
Firstly, we should focus our attention on one thing at a time. If we don’t, dual task interference occurs: our brains are not designed to do two things at once, to multitask. Multitasking can drop performance significantly. Doing one thing at a time can be done by getting things off your mind and externalizing your thinking: David Allen uses the term ‘collection bucket’, in which he captures all tasks, thoughts or actions that come to mind. This collection bucket can be a notebook, a smartphone, etc. In this way, we don’t have all these ‘bullshit’ thoughts on our mind and the brain can fully focus on that one major task in front of us.
Secondly, we should be able to maintain our attention. This can be done by reducing multitasking or the endless switching between tasks. Each time we move between tasks, the brain takes a little time to reorient itself to the rules of the new task itself. This time taken for reorientation is called a ‘switch cost’. The cumulative cost of regular switching is significant: it makes us 40 % slower, even if you have the feeling of being more productive. This is explainable: each time we switch, a small amount of dopamine ( a feel‐good neurotransmitter) is released , letting us feel potent, effective and efficient. We have to learn not to mistake the buzz we get from multitasking for a rightly earned sense of effectiveness. The answer lies in chunking our time into big chunks of activity. Start working on bigger tasks, in bigger chunks of time.
Thirdly, we should be able to refresh our attention. The biggest challenge to our ability to think well in today’s world is what Linda Stone would call ‘continuous partial attention’. We pay partial attention to everything, because we don’t want to miss anything. However, to gain mastery, the last thing you need to do is stay alert and immersed 100% of the time. Instead, you need to think of your days as being intense pulses of focus, followed by recovery. Among a study, the optimum balance of focus and recovery seems to be 52 minutes of focus , followed by 17 minutes of recovery. We regain our ability to focus best through un‐focusing, through periods where we don’t exercise our directed attention. Fuel (water and healthy foods), movement (exercising) , emotion (music, conversations, etc.), attention (involuntary, f.ex: meditation, looking at a landscape) and sleep help you to refresh the brain in order to get ready again for a period of focused, directed attention.
Negotiate your life back
We can’t go on forever accepting more and more, doing more and more. At some point, for the good of our work and for the good of ourselves, we will have to start negotiating. Negotiating is not about haggling; it is about understanding your and your other parties’ underlying needs. Focus on these needs, not the positions. Principle‐based negotiations are based on building agreements founded on underlying needs. From that agreement, start to identify creative solutions that work for both of you.
At some point of too much, we will have to say ‘no’. There are several ways to do this:
- The truthful “no”: honesty sometimes is the best policy. If you make creative excuses, you may hang yourself. The truthful ‘no’ can help to set boundaries and clarify your priorities.
- The thoughtful “no”: we often say ‘yes’ because we can’t think of a good way to say ‘no’. The spotlight is on us and we default to the safest option. Give yourself some time to think. Figure out what you want to say, then go back and say it.
- The positive “no”: behind every ‘no’ should be a big ‘yes’. Focus on the positive reason you are saying ‘no’.
SECTION 2: DIFFERENTIATION
The second element to move beyond busy is differentiation. Busyness is not a success strategy; we wrongly assume that we will make more progress through working hard, reacting fast and delivering without pause. Our perception is that if we can do more, we’ll achieve more. Corporate strategy explains why we need to shift our focus from getting things done to making an impact. This can only be done by differentiation.
Stop being so productive
During the Industrial Age , productivity was the way to succeed. The core capability since then in management is to make people work hard. In that context, we assume that the ‘More’ game is the route to success: work hard, produce a lot, get noticed and succeed. In today’s world, this no longer holds (except in the beginning of our careers). Any small improvement will soon get matched by others. Since everyone is working hard, it’s a fool’s game to try to outwork everyone else.
What is the alternative to the ‘More’ game then? Strategy. Business strategies are a great place to look for lessons to operate in a world of too much, because they are based on how to succeed in competitive situations with limited resources.
Among Tony Crabbe, we have to possess a strategic focus. There are 4 strategic positions we can take:
- Everything for everyone: most common position of those who focus first on productivity: based on trying to do everything for everyone. Not recommended.
- Cost‐based: selling for less than others in the same market; is a valid corporate strategy but not very appealing to most of us.
- Audience‐based: offering a wide range of products or services to a very specific group of clients. It is about getting to know very well your target audience and serving their unique needs.
- Product‐based: creating a narrow range of products or services that will appeal to a wide population of people; Product or service can be “ a fit “ (meeting a specific customer need better than anyone else) or “sexy” (producing a product or service that as an emotional appeal, f.ex: cooler, hotter, etc.). For persons it means developing unique capabilities or expertise.
According to Tony Crabbe, we should always focus on our strengths. Build a strategy that allows you to make use of your greatest strengths. Furthermore we have to make trade‐offs: focus on one strategy. Lastly, ‘less is more’: we will achieve more by doing less, by choosing fewer, big , important things to focus on.
Make an impact through innovation
In the Agricultural Age, competitive advantage came through ownership of land. In the Industrial Age, it came from productivity. In the information Age, it came through information and the ability to capture and analyze it. Information has now become a commodity. What is valuable nowadays? In one word: innovation.
In today’s society of ‘too much’ where markets are more competitive and technology is evolving quicker and consumers are overloaded with information more than ever before, real competitive advantage comes through differentiating. Differentiating comes through innovating.
How can we become more creative in order to innovate?
In becoming creative, it’s important to be constantly on the lookout for new ideas and ways to do things better. Question things and experiment. Most people that say ‘ I am not creative ‘ cut themselves off from generating new ideas. However, neuroscientists have proved that people who define themselves as creative are more likely to consciously try to come up with creative, alternative solutions and ideas. Creativity starts with the decision to try to create. We can all make that choice. Choose to be creative. Concerning the generation of ideas, always try to multiply your new ideas by asking for the plan B and Plan C and borrow ideas from other persons or industries.
Not all ideas will work. Don’t be too attached. Instead use trial and error. If you want to innovate, experiment. Do different things. Some stuff will work; some stuff won’t. Select the stuff that works and discard the stuff that doesn’t, and then vary again.
Realize that busy is a terrible brand
Since we are using busy as a success strategy, the only real message we are transmitting to the world is that we’re really busy, which is a real shame. It says nothing about us, and it certainly doesn’t differentiate us.
In a world of too much information and choice, brands play a significant role. They help us make decisions by substituting a difficult choice with an easier one. You, yourself, have a brand whether you like it or not.
The question is: how to manage your brand?
- Identify your brand. Keep it really, really clear and simple: The brain likes simple. This phenomenon is called cognitive fluency : we feel all kinds of positive things about things if they are easy to process or cognitively fluent. Your brand should describe you at your best: positive, organized, focused, disciplined and motivated.
- Build your brand. We build out brand by living up to it, in all our interactions and activities. In doing this, it is authentic and it brings out our best. Consistently do small things that reinforce that brand.
Walk your own path
We all know what we should do, yet day after day we fail to bring real focus to the big, impactful stuff we know we should do. We fail to walk our own path.
Why is that?
Two big reasons: avoidance and anxiety. To walk your own path and create your own possibilities takes the self‐ control and confidence to resist the temptations and pressures to conform and ‘get busy’.
Busy is avoidance. The big temptation of busy is that it allows us to do the simple, small task over the complex task. Therefore, ‘being busy’ allows us to avoid the hard work. All the activities such as focus, prioritization, problem solving and innovation push our prefrontal cortex to the max, but our brains are lazy (or at least energy conscious): it will always opt for the easy tasks.
How do we avoid the temptation of busy?
There are 3 ways:
- Don’t resist – avoid: strong willpower helps you to set up good habits. These habits allow you to avoid stimuli like unhealthy foods, constant noise of mails and phone messages, etc. Find smart ways to avoid these stimuli, rather than resisting them; f.ex: shut off your phone or only buy healthy foods.
- Eat the frog – habit: First thing in the morning, before you open your inbox or voice mail, set aside a slice of time to work on the biggest, scariest and most important project or task.
- Monitor yourself: Be very self‐aware; it boosts your self‐control.
Being busy also makes us procrastinating. There are 3 main causes of procrastination:
- Dependence: dominated by the word ‘when’: “When I’m on top of my inbox, I’ll do it”. Don’t always wait for another action before you can react. Take action first and then react.
- Inertia: physical law that refers to a ‘power of resisting’ by which everybody endeavours to preserve its present state. This not only refers to objects, but also to people and getting started on anything. This is especially hard for those who set unreasonably high expectations for themselves. The higher the bar people set for themselves, the greater the inertia. How to overcome it?Start moving and gain momentum. Procrastination will evaporate.
- Mood: Too many people wait to be in ‘the right mood’ before getting started. Amy Arnsten discovered that the degree to which the prefrontal cortex is working effectively depends on the right balance of 2 chemicals: dopamine and norepinephrine. Without dopamine, you feel bored and lethargic, but too much and you feel scattered and restless. Without enough norepinephrine you lack urgency, but too much and you feel stress and urgency. There are 4 possible ‘not‐in‐the‐mood’ kinds:
- Not enough dopamine: use reversal theory to shift the goal to having fun rather than task completion
- Too much dopamine : Switch off all distractions
- Not enough norepinephrine : Scare yourself. Visualize what could go wrong if you don’t deliver on time
- Too much norepinephrine: Break the task into manageable chunks and come up with a concrete plan to execution… and breathe. So, how should we stop it? Procrastination is all about momentum. Initially, it is hard to start a big task, but once you get into that work, your mood can flip from ‘being bothered’ to a state of deep enjoyment and engagement called ‘flow’. This is the moment procrastination evaporates.
Busy is defensive.
There are 2 main strategies to regulate our behaviour and emotions:
- Prevention focus : avoiding negative outcomes or bad things to happen, characterized by a great fear of bad outcomes.
- Promotion focus: positively pursuing the goals that are important to us, focused on positive outcomes.
Promotion is the more successful strategy, and is also better for your motivation and well‐being. Busyness is a prevention strategy.
Learning to regulate and manage our emotions is a critical first step in moving to a promotion strategy. Steve Peters developed a working model of emotion: he describes two brains: the frontal and the limbic. The frontal brain he calls ‘the Human’. The limbic brain he calls ‘the Chimp’. The Human is rational and logic. The Chimp thinks emotionally and catastrophically, worrying about the worst possible consequences. It’s also paranoid, continually scanning for threats to safety or status. It is often the Chimp’s catastrophic and paranoid thinking that stops us from pursuing the areas we really want to make a difference in. Therefore, we have to calm the Chimp.
Reappraisal is a powerful way to manage our emotions. People don’t feel fear or anxiety because of the event itself, but because of the meaning we give it. So, if we change our interpretation of an experience, an event or a thought, we are able to change our emotions and overcome our fear. There are 4 reappraisal strategies: Firstly, we can make it less scary or more fun. Secondly, we can ‘zoom out’: put situations in a broader context and we will often realize that the event we were scared about is ridiculous. Thirdly, see the scary situation as a learning opportunity. Lastly, acceptance. Accept your emotions and recognize they are fleeting.
SECTION 3: ENGAGEMENT
Our attempts to improve our lives through acquiring more money, more status and more friends are flawed and won’t make us happy. We can achieve more happiness from a deeper engagement, through putting our values first and focusing our attention on what really matters to us.
Stop striving for more!
Our life has meaning and purpose when it is built on our core values. These are the ultimate source of energy, creativity and resilience. A life that is disconnected from core values soon loses its potency and vitality. We thrive when we are deeply engaged in what is most important to us. Success is defined as ‘the degree to which your life is lived in‐line with your core values’.
Not all values are equally valuable. When people focus on external ‘More’ values, such as the desire for wealth, status, popularity and fame, they are less happy and less healthy. Internally rewarding values, such as growth, close relationships and community feeling (desire to make the world a better place), are strongly linked to thriving and well‐being. Switch your focus from external to internal values that make a big impact on your satisfaction and health.
We are much better off leading value‐first careers, focusing first on what really matters to us. Whatever external gain or achievement you are striving for, it won’t make you happy as you think. So commit to what you value most.
To lead a life in line with your core values, consider what these values are and whether they are reflected in the way you spend your time. Transform your values from an academic exercise to a lifelong source of direction and energy by identifying two or three core values to focus on, instead of a long list.
Relationships are not “nice to haves”: they are central to our lives and well‐being. Strong relationships help us to live longer and to be happier and healthier, physically and mentally. We cannot thrive unless we have strong relationships. The first victims of busyness are often those who are closest to us.
Research shows we are better off focusing on fewer close, deep relationships than lots of (shallower) relationships. Using Robin Dunbar’s research , perhaps the people to focus on are your closest 15 relationships. Giving is good for you: it makes you healthier, happier and more resilient to stress, so think about how you can give more to your 15.
Technology has enabled us to connect to more people, but due to the demand all those relationships place on us, we have more shallow interaction; we are more connected but isolated. Relationships have 2 parts: being together and doing things together. It is in being together and sharing attention that the joy and connectedness come.
Positive emotions help to broaden and build your relationships, so make an effort to generate these emotions. Consider the ratio of positive to negative comments in your relationships and how you can improve this balance. Relationships deepen not just as a result of getting through though time, but also in how good times are celebrated. Make an effort to celebrate positive moments in an active and constructive manner. Engage with the positive moments in the lives of your loved ones by asking: “What tree things went well today?” It will build your relationship and might also improve their personal narrative.
Fromm buzz to joy
Busy is a buzz. It can feel so good: slashing through your to‐do list, skipping from screen to screen and racing from meeting to meeting. The heart is pumping and all kinds of buzz‐inducing chemicals are flowing: adrenaline, dopamine and even the internal opiate system. Since the dopamine and opiate systems are never satisfied, the brain can get addicted to those chemicals. Some health researchers refer to it as a new disease: technology addiction disorder .
Novelty ‐in the form of any kind of new stimulation‐ can therefore easily attract our attention. However, the brain doesn’t like disorder and chaos. When we face a lot of novelty, we get knocked out of course, distracted from our goals and preferences. Our thoughts become chaotic and splintered. This mental state is called psychic entropy, often induced by too much busyness.
The antidote to psychic entropy and the addiction to buzz is flow. Flow moments are states of optimal experience or happiness in which we are deeply engaged with what we’re doing, losing all sense of ourselves and time. Busyness can get in the way of flow experiences in 3 ways: Jumping from task to task without giving ourselves enough time to become deeply engaged ; scattered attention as we constantly scan the environment for new inputs and tending towards a more superficial and expedient approach, rather than a more engrossing, thoughtful and skilful one. Getting into flow means more than just experiencing happiness, it means getting into your optimal performance state as well. So, how do we achieve ‘flow’ ?
- Challenge: we need a certain level of difficulty or ‘challenge’ to reach the flow‐state. The level of challenge needed is always related with you level of skill (see graph).
- Goals: goal‐setting is just another way on increasing challenge.
- Concentration: flow can only be triggered by giving your full attention to a specific task or activity.
- Feedback: optimal experience happens when we’re in feedback‐rich environment, and when we pay close attention to that feedback.
We enjoy things more when we commit and stop keeping our options open. Yet many of us are oblivious to this fact: we fail to commit to pursuits, activities or areas of expertise in the longer term. We get easily enticed by new hobbies and sports, new stimulation, etc. True joy, deep engagement and real mastery come from the persistent immersion in a pursuit. It comes from commitment.
Dive deep into the present moment. There is where full attention will be found. And remember: full, non‐scattered attention is necessary to engage in what you’re doing and reach that flow‐state. So how can we savor the moment more?
‐ Happy attacks: call out: “I’m having a happy attack!” when you notice that you are really enjoying the moment.
‐ Sharpening perceptions: deliberately attempt to focus on certain elements of your present experience and block out others.
‐ Absorption: deliberately quiet the internal dialogue in your head. Stop thinking and immerse yourself in the senses, the body.
A lot us don’t like to be alone with themselves. Research even revealed that people would rather give themselves electric shocks than being alone with their thoughts. One of the most significant findings from neuroscience in recent years is the discovery of the default network. This is the network of neural activity that fires up when we are not externally stimulated with information or activity. It becomes active when we are alone with our thoughts, dreams and ruminations. This default network however is of major importance to process, reflect and integrate all we’ve experienced. It like adigestive system; processing all the food (information and stimulation) to be integrated, allowing us to grow as a person.
For this reason, Tony Crabbe suggest to become ‘comfortable with our emptiness’ and spend time inside ourselves. Philosophers such as Nietzsche, Sartre and Rothko already touched on this subject. They argued that we all have a space inside us of utter emptiness, originating from our unmet needs, unsolved problems and thwarted desires. This emptiness can all affect us, since it is a source of fear, doubt or yearning. Therefore we have to meditate. We have to reflect on our being, our truths, and the meaning of our lives.
In a world of too much, this has become difficult since our stimulation devices are helping us to avoid this critical psychological work we need to do to become whole. If we fail to do so, we can’t resolve our problems and learn from mistakes. We can’t become ourselves, in all our possibilities and potential.