Too much ado about busyness

Posted: Sunday, March 23, 2003

"For a long time it had seemed to me that life was about to begin, real life. Then there was always some obstacle in the way -- something to get through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid -- then life would begin. At last, it dawned on me, that these obstacles were my life."

-- Father Alfred D'Souza

This quote brings up an important topic many of us deal with in life -- busyness. Paul Axtell, a nationally known management trainer observes, "Maybe busyness is the signal that it is time to redesign. People seem to think that if you just keep staying busy, eventually it will clear up. Except if you watch, it doesn't happen. In fact the more you stay busy, the more it persists."

From Axtell's writings I have gleaned two pieces of advice I have found useful. The first Axtell recommendation in tackling the busyness issue is to complete what distracts you so you have the freedom to focus on what is important. His suggestion is to identify 10 small things that are incomplete.

List the 10 things that will take 15 minutes or less for you to do. Commit to handling at least one of the items each day. Add to the list as you discover other incomplete items. Do this exercise for 20 days. As Williams James said, "Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging-on of an unfinished task."

Axtell's second recommendation is to "be no busier than you enjoy" by learning to say no. Think of the last time someone said no to you when you asked for help with a project, event or even a donation. How did it feel? There is often a great deal of tension in this setting. It can be a difficult situation for both parties.

Axtell believes during difficult conversations, it is important to "take care" of people. His philosophy is that while communicating feelings and thoughts, people can take care of themselves and at the same time take care of the other person by being courteous and civil.

Learning to say no is important because there is a cost associated with not doing so. We often end up being busier than we would like to be. We become frustrated because we miss deadlines or have to compromise on the quality of our work. We don't get to the other matters that are important to us. And lastly, each time we say yes to something, we are saying no to something else in our life. Something has to give.

Axtell offers ideas for setting up conversations that reduce the tension in a conversation related to saying no. These ideas include the following phrases:

"My first reaction is to say yes, but I'd like to discuss this because I really am over extended right now."

"I need to say no to this but let's talk because I want to be supportive of you."

"Let me think about what you are asking. I want to say yes, but I'm worried about my ability to deliver right now."

"If there is no other way to get this done, I will do it. But I'd like to talk about it first because it's not a good fit with my interests and abilities."

"My first reaction is to say no, but let's talk about it and see where we end up."

Axtell has some common sense ideas on how to reduce our busyness. I'll leave you with the words of Ghandi, "There is more to life than increasing its speed."

Linda Tannehill is an agent at the Alaska Cooperative Extension Office. She is a home economist and involved in the 4-H/Youth Development programs. The Kenai Peninsula District Extension Office is at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road, Suite A, Soldotna, AK. The phone number is 262-5824 or toll-free at (800) 478-5824.

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