How to be Crazy-Busy Without Losing Your Mind

Fluid Painting Explosion
Credit: flickr / markchadwickart

This post is for my friend Rachelle, who emailed me earlier this week saying,

How do you stay sane with all that you do? Is the trick to carve out mini-relaxations/blow off steam whenever you can? Maybe I just haven’t given myself permission to do that enough and created a bigger problem now.

First off, I’m not super-woman and I’m struggling as much as anyone else! In fact, I was thinking earlier that I was completely unqualified to write this as I’m more crazy busy and losing my mind! However I took some time to chill out, and now I’m going to share what I’ve got. That was a preview – because an important part of it is recognizing when you can’t go on!

I think there’s this line between busy-and-super-productive and busy-overwhelmed-screwing-things-up. I crossed that line sometime in the last week, and I’ve recognized that I can’t go on like that and I need some time for me. I’ve also been trying to put some things in place so that my load becomes more manageable.

I’m in a really fortunate position, because I’m not as broke as your average student. Some things I’ve expended money on to make them less effort/happen at all, but I’m going to try and list some cheaper alternatives.

1. Plan your R&R like you plan anything else

I decided at the start of the week that come Sunday I’m taking some time off – but I know I’ll find it hard to stick to it so I’ve been coming up with ways to make sure I actually take some downtime.

  • If you’re like me, when you’ve started reading a novel you won’t stop until it’s done. Treat yourself to one, set aside some time, and start reading (cheap).
  • Organize going somewhere with friends, I was talking with some about going to the Diefenbunker, which is a good half-day out. A half-day out is much less stressful than a full day (mid-price).
  • Wednesday, I was approaching meltdown; I’ve wrenched my shoulder, the week isn’t going to plan and I was feeling sick after getting the swine-flu shot. I couldn’t wait until Sunday to take a day off, it had to be tomorrow. So I called a spa and got a package (mud-wrap, facial, massage). In the end, I couldn’t get in for Thursday, so I booked it for Sunday, but having that to look forward to is making me feel better already (expensive).

2. What can you let slide?

I might be just about holding it together in public, but our apartment is a tip, we have no clean dishes and I won’t make it to the gym the 4 times this week I wanted to. If it’s just a crazy week or two, what can you cut corners on? My trainer (more on that later) bugs me about it, but I rarely cook anything – the last couple of weeks I’ve probably eaten more often at my desk in my office than at home!

Alternatively, what can you make that will last for a while? I have soup recipe and a chicken dish that keep well, and just make enough to last several days (I’m not much of a foodie, so I don’t mind eating the same thing several days running).

Instead of going to the gym 5 times, can you go 3 times and work out for a little while longer?

I have some lovely CHI straighteners, but I haven’t used them yet. Wearing my hair curly is quicker and looks just as good. Earlier in the semester I wanted to look more “pulled together”, though  – giant knee brace was greatly limiting my wardrobe choices and I was always wearing my hair in a pony tail. If I’m just going into my office I’ve been known to just wear sweats but I won’t go and teach a tutorial like that! I went to Clinique and got a base with more coverage (I was just using city block), switched to a darker mascara and started wearing eyeshadow every day. Result – 2 minutes extra to apply makeup, and the more pulled together look I wanted – without spending more time on my hair! And I let the jeans slide, so I didn’t have to go shopping for things that would hide the stupid brace.

3. What do you need to do to keep you sane?

For me, it’s exercise and blogging. Make time for the stuff that you need to function – even if it’s not as much as usual. This evening, I just needed to watch Desperate Housewives and stop thinking about all the things I have to do. The constant guilt really takes it’s toll!

4. How can you reduce the time you spend coordinating with people? Encourage people to contact you in the way that works better for you.

The students I TA made me realize this – they’re smart about it and often they email me in English, it doesn’t make a huge difference whether I read the email in French or English, but the difference is I can reply in English. This means they get a faster response – it takes me a while to write in French and I can’t just dash off an email in French on the go – I need a dictionary!

Because of the time of year, I get a lot of requests for appointments for help with assignments/general understanding. So, I made an webpage (that’s not linked from any other page on my website), embedded my schedule using Google Calendar and now I respond to requests for an appointment with the URL, letting them know I don’t typically come in on Mondays and Thursday. I had to make my calendar public, but Google Calendar allows me to just share my free/busy information. And this makes it a lot easier for me to schedule things.

5. Sometimes you need to say no.

This is a huge one, and one that frankly I still fail at. But if someone asks you something and you genuinely can’t do it – say so. Much better than just postponing it, or not getting it done.

Or, say yes – but on your terms. For instance, the other day I got an email from a student saying they couldn’t make it to my office hour, with a list of seven (yes, seven!) questions – on the day the assignment was due. I actually put aside what I was doing and started to answer it, and then I realized that I had two things to do that were higher priority, and shouldn’t let someone else’s last-minute request distract me from that. So I replied saying that I couldn’t respond before my office hour, so she should come if she could make it, and if not I would try and respond later. I did respond – but on my schedule and I was booked up until 10pm that night. Do I wish I could have responded sooner? Yes. But I have a <24 hour response time for my students, which is frankly better than anyone else gets and this was within that. I understand that some stuff gets left to the last minute – but I can’t always compensate for that.

Alternatively, learn the art of the passive aggressive (just use it lightly, you don’t want to be a passive aggressive – they’re super annoying and hard to deal with). I suggest you only use this on passive aggressives, because frankly I’m not sure how else you can deal with them.

6. Reduce your cognitive load.

Every time you switch tasks, there’s an overhead whilst you refocus. Try to minimize this switching and you should improve your productivity. Turn off notifications, because each one causes a distraction, a switch to the task, and a switch back to what you were doing before. People can spend an insane amount of time on this – thinking that they’re being productive. I turn off email notifications, and whilst I monitor what comes in through the day, I then process everything together to reduce the overhead. Which basically means stuff sits in my inbox for ages, but as I mentioned at the top – I’m still working on all this! On my new laptop, I have not set up email. It’s amazingly liberating!

7. Carve out the time you need to be productive.

Tim Ferriss is somewhat evangelical about this – meetings damage your productivity. But they’re inevitable and some things about them are difficult to replace. For instance, we have meetings for WISE and yes, perhaps they could be replaced by a Google Wave conversation but for us, I think the camaraderie and the accountability of promising action in front of a group of people on something that is essentially optional is important.

However, then I look at my calendar, and it’s full of stuff, and the time that I have stuff is the time when I’m not Getting Things Done. But most of it is necessary so I just try and manage it. One thing I do is schedule things together. This means I’m running between things, but it reduces the amount of times that I sit down in my office and have less than an hour that I just don’t know what to do with. The most important thing, though, is that it leaves me the big chunks of time (4+ hours) that I need to work on the things that are important.

8. Don’t neglect your network.

It’s easy to put social things on hold, or refuse to help someone because you’re “sooooo busy”, but you know what? Everyone’s busy and sometimes when you’re busy you need people to help you. I know, some people just take, so this doesn’t apply to them (I’m fairly brutal on minimizing those people’s presence in my network – thankfully there aren’t many of them), but for the others – make as much time for the people that need your help as you can, because it’ll come back around.

For your friends, you don’t want to be thought of as a flake. Keep cancellations to a minimum, and give as much notice as possible.

9. Delegate.

WISE had an event on Tuesday, and honestly I was in a Giant Panic because I was being used as an example, typing up my assignment had turned out to be more work than anticipated (all the assignments for this class have been like that, I should have learned) and finally I discovered that I’d missed an email and – as a result – a deadline.So I emailed the other girls, admitted I was panicking, and they pitched in. Everyone did one <30 min task, and I managed to get the overdue task done because all I had to do was pick up sandwiches.

Missing the deadline was what made me realized I’d crossed that line – the one between busy-and-super-productive and busy-overwhelmed-screwing-things-up. And I freaked out – because that’s not me. Recognizing that I’d crossed that line was super important, because it made me realize that the only way to get my productivity and being-on-top-of-things back, was to take a break. And ask people for help – because I clearly couldn’t do it on my own.

I’m coming back from my knee injury and trying to get back into shape. It’s hard after such a long break, and frankly exercise isn’t fun anymore because I’m not allowed to kickbox (other things seem tame by comparison) and it hurts. So I got a personal trainer – I’ve delegated the motivation (which I’m just too busy to have) and also, I’m tracking everything I eat and drink and she’s monitoring it – so I’m delegating a good chunk of the guilt and will-power as well. A training buddy who will hold you accountable is a cheaper alternative.

10. Sometimes good-enough – is good enough

I handed in an assignment this week, and as I was finishing it up, slightly at the last minute, I realized there was a small mistake – most likely in the data I was using. I briefly thought about going back and redoing that (small) section, and then I didn’t. So what if it’s not perfect? That mistake is not, I don’t think, a big deal. It’s an assignment, not heart surgery! If you a juggling a lot of things and trying to achieve perfection, perfection on some things might mean less-than-good on others. Learn when good enough, is good enough. When the return on the time you spend on it is not worth what you’ll get in return, stop.

Some tasks require you to be a perfectionist. Be honest with yourself, though – not all of them do.

11. Find Great Mentors

One of the most inspirational women I know works three jobs – good jobs, too! One full time, two part time. Recently, she was telling me about an art show she was doing – as well! Of course I was really happy for her, but later I confessed that I felt woefully inadequate by comparison and asked how she was doing it all? Was she superhuman?! Did she sleep?! She told me her secret was micro-progress, she’s been working on the art show project for months, making a bit of progress each time. Treena is great too – when I have slight meltdowns on Twitter she sends me messages reminding me, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint”, and sympathizes with my frustrations about university bureaucracy etc.

Find people who will take the time to listen to your doubts, and tell you their secrets – and reassure you that they’re not super-human.

12. Stop beating yourself up

The most unproductive and unhelpful thing you can do is berate yourself for what you haven’t achieved, for deadlines you haven’t met. Celebrate your achievements, forgive yourself the things you miss, and get up tomorrow and try and do it all over again.

I know it’s hard, but I’ll try and stick to this too – stop telling people you’re busy (for starters, it’s annoying) and instead focus on what you’re achieving. You’ll come across more positively, and seem more proactive. Talking about how you’re busy probably won’t achieve anything, talking about what you’re doing might – and then you’ll have something to celebrate!

Finally…

This is just what’s working for me, and what do I know? I’m not super-human either. So work out what you need, and what makes you productive, and then go for it.

5 thoughts on “How to be Crazy-Busy Without Losing Your Mind

  1. Cate! Thank you for this great post. What a thorough answer to my question!

    I still need to work on especially #s 1,3, 5,8 and 11. But I am good at 6 and 2 already. And on a sidenote, I AM like you in that I read a book in 1 sitting. Did that a few weeks ago and it felt so delicious! And miraculously, the time I spent on that did not hinder me getting all I wanted to do done, because I felt so much better afterwards.

    Oh, and I also find your concept of the busy-productive — overwhelmed screwing up line to be very useful! Having a defined metric like this will help me not panic due to a vague sense of so-much-to-do, because I’ll be able to define, oh I’m here in relation to the line. ok, I’ve crossed the line, so I need to do something about that.

    Cheers!

  2. Cate! Thank you for this great post. What a thorough answer to my question!

    I still need to work on especially #s 1,3, 5,8 and 11. But I am good at 6 and 2 already. And on a sidenote, I AM like you in that I read a book in 1 sitting. Did that a few weeks ago and it felt so delicious! And miraculously, the time I spent on that did not hinder me getting all I wanted to do done, because I felt so much better afterwards.

    Oh, and I also find your concept of the busy-productive — overwhelmed screwing up line to be very useful! Having a defined metric like this will help me not panic due to a vague sense of so-much-to-do, because I’ll be able to define, oh I’m here in relation to the line. ok, I’ve crossed the line, so I need to do something about that.

    Cheers!

  3. Yes, I’ve been really feeling the being over the line thing – it’s like, you’re working flat out but nothing’s moving forward because you’re making little mistakes and things are taking ages… you need to stop and chill out for a bit!

    Book thing is a good one, I’m going to get one for tomorrow 🙂 really glad this helped – enjoy the weekend!

  4. Yes, I’ve been really feeling the being over the line thing – it’s like, you’re working flat out but nothing’s moving forward because you’re making little mistakes and things are taking ages… you need to stop and chill out for a bit!

    Book thing is a good one, I’m going to get one for tomorrow 🙂 really glad this helped – enjoy the weekend!

Leave a Reply