By Jake MacCallum
I have so much work to do, and I think I have spread myself too thin across commitments. What should I do?
Dear Drowning in Duties,
Imagine for a second, you’re a 16th-century bladesmith (bear with me). After hammering down on an amber-hot piece of metal for several painstaking hours, you shape it to a fine point, engrave on it the slogan of your clan, cool it in a pail of water, and tuck your newly forged sword into a leather sheath. In your day, sword-making was hardly trivial; it teetered on the sacred. Now snap back to reality. As your imaginary blade smithing self has demonstrated, applying equal parts force and restraint constitutes a recipe for success. And as you will see, the utility of this recipe extends far beyond sword-making, so far that it applies to you—a busy bee living in the 21st century.
Like the bladesmith knowing when to strike and when to mold, or the gambler knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em, in the face of potential commitment, one must know when to accept and when to refuse. Through this pick and choose process, a happy medium is founded between doing too much and too little, being too busy and not busy enough. It is indeed an art to strike such a perfect balance, and while mastering an art requires immense practice, both the process and product promise reward. With that, let’s get you on your way to mastering the art of busyness.
So, you’ve got to find that sweet spot, but how? Of course, commitments can’t just be shuffled like used clothing on Facebook marketplace! While some responsibilities aren’t necessarily enjoyable, they are necessary. We should honour our word to see things through to the end, and if honour isn’t an adequate incentive, then perhaps the fact that nobody likes a quitter suffices. But really, “Never give up” is not meant to be taken literally and cross-contextually. Sometimes quitting is your best option, and sometimes, your only one. Whether you work a hateful job, are in a toxic relationship, or are committed to going out with your drinking buddies even after you’ve grown to hate the taste and repercussions of beer, when it’s your health and happiness at stake, quitting is always an option. Remember that life is short, too short to suffer needlessly, and sometimes you’ve got to look out for number one. We need time to stop and smell the roses, because as our friend Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Yes, letting go sucks. Saying no sucks. But perhaps only in the short term. It may be awkward telling your boss you need to work less, but in the end, when you have more time to catch up on your studies, you’ll be glad you did. And no matter how much peer pressure afflicts you, saying no to things you don’t have time for will also benefit you in the long run. But then again, how can you know for sure what you do and don’t have time for?
Three words: Plan. Plan. Plan. If you don’t already own one, buy a journal or day planner, and in it, schedule essential things that must be accomplished from Sunday to Sunday, then day by day plan in more detail. I like to sit down every evening and write out things to get done the next day. Planning helps me determine how much free time I’ll have and keep track of deadlines. It helps answer questions like, “Can I shoulder more responsibilities” and “Can I afford to put off this assignment to go out with friends?” In addition to this, it can be of great benefit to distinguish urgent tasks from important ones (give the Eisenhower Matrix a whirl). And don’t forget that efficiency is everything. The faster you accomplish a task, the more free time you’ll have on your hands. So, cement good working habits to maximize your time. Put your phone in another room. Notice when your mind wanders and consciously direct it back to what’s in front of you. Give yourself breaks to prevent burnout (the Pomodoro technique is one way to do this; taking a five-minute break every 25 minutes). Minor corrections can make a world of difference.
Ask yourself, “What do I value?” Try writing out a list, beginning with things you value most and culminating with things you value a little less. Your list may start broad and become narrower, opening with family and friends and closing with bubble baths and good food. Now think of all the things you do in the run of a day, a week, a month. Create a list for that as well, beginning with what you spend most of your time on and ending with things on which you spend less time. Now compare the lists. Do they align? Ask yourself, “Is my time spent in precise proportion to the things I value?” The answer is likely to be “No.”, and that’s OK. The idea is not to have two perfectly synchronized lists but to reflect on what matters and plan how you might spend your time in ways that lighten the load from some areas direct those resources unto others. You want to take time from things that drain you without any inherent return and reallocate it to meaningful things. So, cut the fat from the old list and write a new list of how you would like to have your time divided. Think of what you could do if you had all the free time in the world. What would you do? Try to work such things into the new list. Ultimately, each item on the time list should correlate with at least one thing on the value list. If it doesn’t, cut it out.
The point of the exercise is not to evict all demanding and uncomfortable things from your life and, in their stead, construct a pleasure palace. So, before you have too much fun planning your ideal life, ask yourself, “Am I quitting something simply because it’s challenging?” It is important to differentiate what is challenging from what is outright futile. What is challenging promotes internal growth. What is futile will drive you mad.
The point is to reframe your focus around what truly matters to you. With your sights set appropriately, you’ll be able to secure a healthier balance between obligations and hobbies, between the not-so-fun but necessary things and the people you hold near and dear. With luck, your duties will no longer spread you so thin, and you can maintain a view of the big picture.
Kudos for being honest with yourself. It’s easy to suppress stress and convince yourself that you can juggle a million things at once because who wants to admit defeat, right? Well, wrong. There is no defeat because, as strong as the illusion is, it’s not a matter of winning and losing. It’s a matter of what you want out of your life.
So you have too much on your plate, but who can blame you? It’s a fine line between feeling full and stuffed. That one extra, seemingly harmless scoop of mashed potatoes at Christmas dinner has the potential to throw anybody (even John Candy) into a comatose state. So, remember, you are not alone! Truthfully, while writing this, a big part of me felt like I was giving advice to myself. I, too, fear I have too much on my plate, and I’m just one bite away from internal combustion.
Now, with a freshly sharpened sword at your hip and a heart saturated in wisdom, you’re ready to venture into battle, to take on a busy day your way. You are now a precocious student of a new art form—the art of being busy. And while very few achieve mastery to the ninth degree, it is the pursuit of an ideal, not its realization, that matters.
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