Rethink busywork, free up time, and achieve what matters

Exhausted business man with satchel leaning against wall after busy workday
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Do you get caught up with trivia? Does this stop you doing what you really want or need to do? Rethinking busywork, those seemingly urgent chores, will free up your day.

You all know unimportant, non-urgent timewasters can be a trap.

But what about tasks which seem important and urgent, but aren’t?

For example, are you driven to clean your house before doing anything else? Perhaps you can’t settle down to work unless you’ve answered all your emails? Or returned all those calls or checked Facebook?

Of course it feels good when your house is clean, or your inbox is empty.

But you’re using valuable energy on routine chores that offer little inspiration. What’s more, you’re reducing productivity if you’re working from home.

None of us can afford to start the day with non-urgent chores or timewasters.

Rethinking busywork will free up your day. So ask yourself:

Do you really have to do it now?

Even – do you have to do it at all? 

Drop activities that are really unnecessary and which you do purely from habit. 

For the rest, start to develop strategies to prevent them taking over your days. 

Unless you’ve got visitors arriving, leave your housework for an hour. Unless you’re in chaos, tidy your office after you’ve written that article.

Learn to tolerate the discomfort of leaving non-urgent tasks till later. Many tasks can be left for a few hours without causing problems.

Keep a short list of them so you don’t forget them. 

But start your more meaningful activities first. That way you won’t get caught by the “It’ll only take a minute” trap.

The “It’ll only take a minute” trap

You all know this one. You tell yourself you’ll only spend a minute on a quick but non-urgent task. Then you’ll knuckle right down to what you want or need to do.

Somehow you squash that tiny voice that says, “Sure you will…as if!” 

Because the problem is that it never takes just a few minutes. There’s always one more thing to do. Before you know it, an hour’s gone. Then another.

You’re squandering peak time

And all you’ve done is squander your peak time – when your thinking, energy and motivation are at their best. Once you’ve spent that energy and motivation, it’s hard to recover it.

So if you waste the start of the day, you kill your productivity. You’ll coast through the rest of the day in a kind of dull apathy, rather than focussing deeply.

But are you achieving anything creative, constructive or meaningful in this state?

Start the day meaningfully

Instead, commit to starting the day with a significant or personally fulfilling task. Something important but not urgent

This may be part of a longer-term goal of your own, or a work project.

Don’t get caught up first thing with trivial chores or timewasters. Make your main focus the most significant tasks with meaning and importance for you.

Rethinking busywork

So rethinking busywork involves a major change in your mindset. From now on, don’t allow yourself to waste slabs of time on trivial chores, either at home or work. 

Visualise all forms of busywork as a never-ending collection of small actions. 

Each action only takes a few minutes. Over time, the stream of small actions is repeated again and again, in a continual process with no end point.

These small actions can take over your day – if you allow them to.

Use busywork chores as downtime

Instead see busywork chores as fillers – tasks you sandwich between sessions of deep focus on one of your goals. 

So rather than doing hours of busywork for its own sake, spread it through the day.

Plan which chores you’ll do in each break between sessions of deep focus. Aim to spend only a few minutes on any particular chore, and limit your breaks to 5 – 10 minutes.  

Knowing you’ll eventually get these chores done lets you focus on the important tasks.

Extend to different types of busywork

You can extend these ideas to many different types of busywork, no matter what you’re doing.  

For instance:

answering trivial phone queries or emails
filing
making database entries
writing routine reports
editing unimportant documents
reading meeting agendas
tidying the office or decluttering.

Getting back to your focus activity

One big problem is getting back to your important task after a break. The temptation is to waste time on trivia, and avoid what you really want to do. 

Set a timer for 5 – 15 minutes if you have to. After that time, ignore your brain’s pleas to look at one more email, or make one more call. Resist the urge to get lost down the internet rabbit hole.

Acknowledge the urge to do these things, and then get straight back to your important task. 

Sometimes it’s hard to get back to your focus activity, because you’re not sure what to do next. 

Here are a few tips to help you get back to your chosen focus task quickly.

Before taking a break:

Before ending a focus session, note down the next steps you need to take when you return. Then you’ll pick up the thread of what you were doing more easily.

For instance, if you’re writing, jot down the next thing you need to write about or edit. If you’re reading, briefly scan the next chapter or lecture for an overview. If you’re working on an art or craft project, decide on the next action needed.

Visualise this clearly before you take your break. You’ll feel more confident about where you’re headed. And that means you’re less likely to procrastinate making a start again. 

In addition, visualise starting work again without distractions. See yourself carrying out what you want or need to do.

Minimise distractions

Be strict and refocus on the goals you’ve set for the day. Make sure these are realistic so you’re not discouraged. Be content with small gains, and steady progress.

However, sometimes you may have unavoidable distractions looming through the day. Learn to minimise the disruption they cause.

If you’re waiting for a meeting or for a return phone call, write down what you want to say or ask. Then let it go, and refocus on your project. When the call or meeting comes, your notes will remind you of what you want to say.

If someone wants to see you, suggest a few times that suit you. Don’t give others the impression that you’re available all day.

If you can, close your door for a few hours in the day. Others will soon adapt to the idea that you don’t want to be disturbed except for emergencies.

Lastly, set aside short times, perhaps twice a day, to check social media and emails quickly. Resist the temptation to reply to others immediately if it’s not urgent. Again, they’ll get used to you not being instantly available – if you’re consistent.

Work hard to preserve your precious time. Otherwise busywork tasks will hijack your mental focus, distracting you from what’s really significant or important.

Break down large busywork tasks

Sometimes busywork tasks are too daunting to tackle all in one hit. Breaking them down makes them more manageable. They’re also boring when you spend too long on them.

This works for most types of busywork. Be creative, and experiment for yourself. 

As a simple example, cleaning a bathroom is made up of these small actions.

Dusting/cleaning the bath.
Cleaning the basin.
Wiping down the vanity unit.
Wiping down walls round sinks, bath and/or shower.
Cleaning mirrors.
Restocking the cabinet with toiletries etc.
Replacing towels and soap.
Wiping down the shower screen.
Spraying tile cleaner on the walls of the shower.
Wiping down the walls of the shower.
Scrubbing the grout in the shower.
Scrubbing the shower floor.
Vacuuming/sweeping the bathroom floor.

You could spread these over a couple of days. That way, you’ll clean your bathroom a few minutes at a time, in between more important tasks.

Then you can do the same for the next large cleaning task. 

Over a month, you’ll rotate through most major tasks. And the more regularly you clean, the easier it will get.

And here’s how you can use those spare minutes to start an exercise routine – without needing to go to the gym.

Daily productivity

Start to think in terms of your productivity. This isn’t to turn you into a high-powered business person if you’re not already. It’s simply a way to reframe how you use your time.

Until you realise your personal time will run out at some stage, you’ll waste it.

None of us live forever

You never know what’s around the corner. And you don’t want to regret not fulfilling your goals. Make the most of what time you have.

Develop a sense of urgency about using time well, to achieve what matters. 

Life seems to run by faster and faster every day. Plan ahead to make the best use of your time. Rethinking busywork will help free up your day.

Set a small challenge every day

Set yourself a small challenge every day to use your time in the best way you can. 

Slowly increase each session of deep focus to about 30 – 50 minutes. In the long term, aim for 3-5 sessions per day, at work or home.

Using routine busywork chores in the gaps between sessions will allow your brain and body downtime from deep focus. When you’re tired, perhaps by late afternoon, do more routine tasks that don’t need deep focus.

Commit to changing

So commit to changing how you use your time. 

Life is too short to waste the best times on repetitive chores. 

It’s up to you

In the end, you’re the only person who can do this. No-one else can make you use your time more effectively.

And we all know that changing our habits can be hard.

But what’s the alternative?

Watching your life being frittered away on trivia? Never achieving what you really want to achieve? Living with regret that you didn’t make the most of the time you had?

So look at the way you spend your time. Start the day with the most important, significant and meaningful tasks. Get into the habit of breaking down busywork tasks into smaller units. And use those to fill in the breaks between focus sessions. 

See your productivity and sense of achievement soar when you follow these hints to rethink busywork.

Live with intention to make the best use of your time.

Rethinking busywork will free up your day, and let you focus on what really matters.

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