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Busy means you’re not focused

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Busy is a very interesting thing to be.

Being overwhelmed by how busy you are doesn’t mean you’re actually creating or doing the work. Busy simply means you’re unfocused on what you should be doing, so you feel busy.

To the creative worker, busy is a familiar feeling. There’s never not enough to do or explore.

But to be busy means you simply aren’t focusing your efforts on the work that needs the most attention. If you were focused then you wouldn’t feel as busy, you’d feel another word: productive.

Yet we live in a day-and-age where being busy is praised, almost worshipped. The hard-working individual who is in the office or studio before sunrise and leaves only well-after the sun has set is looked at as someone to idolize.

We feel the burden to do more, make more, work more and as a result we confuse the hours spent sitting in front of a canvas, or keyboard, with actually doing quality work.

Author Scott Berkun recently summed up this confusion nicely on his blog:

“This means people who are always busy are time poor. They have a time shortage. They have time debt. They are either trying to do too much, or they aren’t doing what they’re doing very well. They are failing to either a) be effective with their time b) don’t know what they’re trying to effect, so they scramble away at trying to optimize for everything, which leads to optimizing nothing.”

Being busy (or, at least, appearing to be) is becoming a huge phenomenon, particularly in the United States where innovation is flailing and creativity is becoming a cultural flagpole.

Recently in Slate, Hanna Rosin uncovered research into how busy we all claim we are, even when we’re not:

“The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game. These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age.”

In her article, Hanna goes on to explore the writing and research of Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte, who says that playing the “busy” card has become the norm for many of us. She quotes Tim Kreider, author of a great NYTimes piece titled: “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” who writes: “Busyness is a virtue, so people are terrified of hearing they may have empty time.”

How do we escape this illusion and get back to producing better quality and more meaningful work?

There are a number of ways, thankfully. One which I have recently found to be the most beneficial is simply focusing our attention. Look at all you have to do, all that you want to do, and pick the most important things to work on now and into the near future.

Little things will certainly pile-up around you, but if you’re not willing to focus your attention you’re wasting your time and capabilities anyway.

Scott Berkun gives us advice on escaping the busy-ness culture on his blog as well:

“I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say Yes to everything. For to do so would make me too busy, and I think, less effective at what my goals are. I always want to have some margin of my time in reserve, time I’m free to spend in any way I choose, including doing almost nothing at all.”

Back to Hanna Rosin’s Slate article, she found that silently reminding yourself that you’re really just not that busy worked for her:

“The way I did this was by silently repeating, ‘You’re not that busy.’ Doing this did actually stop the tape in my head of what had to get done that day. I just calmly did one thing after another.”

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmingly busy lately, take a step back and remind yourself that the feeling is a signal to focus your attention and make time for what matters most.

To really get back to the grove of things, remind yourself that you’re not actually as busy as you think you are.

Related:

Scott Berkun on The Cult of Busy

You’re Not As Busy As You Say You Are

The ‘Busy’ Trap

Photo via Flickr.



“So creativity for me is a way that we link our ambitions with what consequences they have. It has a force around it…The word ‘creative’ actually means something. It’s not just adding a little quality to your life. It is the question, ‘What is life altogether?’”

GOOD interviews Danish-Icelandic experience architect, Olafur Eliasson

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“One of the reasons I like keeping a logbook is that it makes time tangible. Turn the pages, and you can feel the days pass.”

Artist slash writer Austin Kleon reminds us that the year is halfway over, and the importance of keeping a notebook.

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Creativity is a cup of jelly beans

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Imagine that you have a transparent, plastic cup placed in front of you and thousand of brightly colored jelly beans off to the side of it.

Your job is to fill the cup up. You take one jelly bean at a time and place it into the cup, one after another stacking them sporadically until the cup is a mess of color.

When the filled cup is held in front of you, all you can see is the color of the beans on the outside, right? As you spin the cup in your hand you can see the other colors of the jelly beans that dot the inner perimeter as well. Maybe, if you try hard enough, you can make out the faint colors of jelly beans behind the outer most ones.

What happened to the jelly beans at the center of the cup? They’re there, undoubtedly, but what colors are they?

This is how creativity in the mind works. Every day new thoughts and ideas fill our brains, in the form of our senses reacting to our experiences. Our eyes alone send hundreds of thousands of signals to our brain every second.

To be creative is to ask what color of “jelly beans” have been tucked away in the center of our minds.

Back in front of our imaginary cup, you have to shake it up in order to move all the beans around and see what’s inside. The brain, too, needs to be mentally shaken (not physically) in order to uncover what’s hidden away inside.

By asking questions that start with “what if?”, “how would?” and “why?” we shake the ideas in our brain in order to see what other ideas have been hidden beneath. By adjusting our perspective, rattling our knowledge, exploring new and exciting areas, that’s how we shake our mental jar of beans.

It’s through uncovering those hidden ideas, by shaking our thoughts, that new insights become available to us.

Sure, you could be content to admire the ideas on the perimeter, but if you instead wonder what’s inside, you’re bound to find a lot more color.

Related:

How to be creative on the spot

Asking the right questions to invoke creativity

The perfect formula for creativity

Photo by Steve Koukoulas.



Where I don’t know leads

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“I don’t know.”

Those are three very powerful words. They help us to explore new territory, push past boundaries, and face our fears.

Admitting that you “don’t know” allows you to be more creative than those who do. The naivety of not knowing makes it easier to overcome difficult problems, because you don’t know whether or not the ideal outcome is possible yet. You’ll explore and tinker until the pieces fall into place or don’t, whereas experts won’t even attempt to explore because they already know what’s possible and what’s not. To quote author Steven Farmer: “With no expectations anything can become.” Not knowing is a creative asset, it should be pursued and harnessed.

Of course, not knowing can be a hinderance to productivity as well.

Not knowing means you know that you’re going to make mistakes. It means that you’re walking into a moment that is both cold and dark, where you’re not sure whether you can come out on the other end or not. Not knowing can be paralyzingly frightening.

It’s those who are able to push pass the fear of the unknown that reap the rewards.

Sure, you might fail, you might reach a dead-end, you may even temporarily embarrass yourself. But if the alternative is to discover completely new solutions, to learn more and expand your potential, to do what nobody else is doing, it seems that not knowing what you’re doing (and doing it anyway) is worthwhile anyway.

You’re facing your fears when you admit “I don’t know,” you’re also embarking on a quest to do something very much worthwhile.

Related:

The power of naive questions

Impostor Syndrome on Wikipedia

Ways to discover the impossibly possible

Photo by Andreas Overland