Nobody Is That Busy

Ask anyone running through the halls of a high-tech company how they’re doing. The informal poll I did on a random Wednesday resulted in 99.9% answering “Crazy busy,” or some version of that. When I dug deeper and asked what was causing people to be so “crazy busy,” they offered the typical responses: back-to-back meetings, hundreds of emails in their inbox, and no space in their days to think.

But when you scratch the surface of what “everybody knows,” a deeper truth that contradicts the surface appearance often emerges—we are not that busy. We have all the time in the world.

I used to be just like everybody else in the Valley (and in the spirit of full transparency, I still am that person sometimes). I was literally jogging from meeting to meeting all day long. I thought it was a sign that I was important. I finally made it to a place where everyone wanted a part of me. I assumed that having a full calendar, sending emails late at night, and getting five hours of sleep was the rite of passage to becoming not just an executive, but an important executive.

But if being crazy busy is a mark of success, how come everybody seems to hate it?

As Head of Learning & Development for Twitter, I’m asked at least once a week whether we’re going to offer a time management class that will magically solve the too-many-priorities-emails-and-meetings problem. Yet it’s not our lack of skill with focus or prioritizing that keeps us from achieving the lives we long for. It’s not our full calendars, email, Twitter, or <insert latest app here> that’s distracting us.

It’s us.

In a world of infinite distractions, we need to be better curators of our time and energy.

I recently read Laura Vanderkam’s book 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think. Vanderkam interviewed dozens of successful, happy people and realized that they allocate their time differently than most of us. The big shift for these people was defining and making time for the important stuff.

Inspired, I started tracking my time. I discovered that, within the 168 hours that make up a single week, 60 percent of my time was spent in reactive mode: responding to emails, attending meetings, and drifting through random time-wasters (like half reading the newspaper while picking up the house) in dozens of five-minute increments. I also spent a lot more time watching The Daily Show on iTunes than I cared to admit.

None of this was much of a surprise. What was surprising was how little time I spent on “future work”—thinking strategically, reading, and writing. This kind of creative, productive work occupied only ten percent of my time. Ouch.

One solution is to actually schedule future work—to block out time in your calendar to escape from random busyness and focus on the big picture.

Some people are scared of putting space in their calendar to think. Our calendars are symbols of how much we’re getting done, so leaving some of that precious space “empty” for thinking feels wasteful. Yet the most productive people I know aren’t in meetings all day. They rarely declare anything “urgent”. They attend only the truly necessary meetings—and when they do attend those meetings, they are quietly asking the questions that no one else wants to ask. They are creating the future while the rest of us are responding to our emails.

One senior executive I work with strives to carve out two hours every day to focus on strategy and building for the future. Sometimes when you walk by his desk, you can see him at the whiteboard by himself or simply sitting quietly at his desk, thinking.

Another executive recently declined a calendar invitation meeting with me. After I reminded him that he had asked for the meeting, he emailed me back, “I know, but I can’t handle that much face time with people today.” That was the most brilliant email I had received in a long time. It was real, transparent, and a great reminder that even when our days seem “open,” we need to align them around our real priorities rather than our task list.

Our busyness is a result of our culture glorifying “doingness” vs. “mindfulness.” A lot has been written about mindfulness lately, much of it adding unnecessary layers of mysticism to the topic. I define mindfulness simply as the ability to live intentionally. When I spend 15 minutes each day intentionally planning, I am less likely to fall into the “crazy busy” patterns of my past.

So, now, when I review my calendar weekly and daily, I ask questions like:

“Do I need to attend that meeting, or can someone else on my team do it? If I need to attend, does the meeting need to last an hour?”

“Where can I add thinking time?”

“What is the one priority I need to get done today?”

Driven by these questions, I block out open spaces in my calendar for future work, coded with the color green.

There are times when those green spaces on my calendar are sanity-savers. In the office the other day, I got a call from my doctor that caused me to pause—potential bad news that made me feel the weight of the world on my shoulders. My first thought was to run home, get under the covers, and just listen to Jon Stewart make jokes about the rest of the world. Instead, I took a deep breath and opened my calendar. When I saw that my next hour was green, I slowly closed the lid to my computer. That hour of time allowed me to center myself and even take a short walk outside.

Within a few hours, my doctor called back with good news—her earlier warning had been a false alarm.

She asked, “How are you doing?”

“Relieved and grateful,” I said.