Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Short Guide to Overextension

Here's a golden oldie; something I wrote during nine years of hundred hour work weeks slogging away on Chowhound (as described in my "Bubbles, Slogs, and Selling Out" saga).

I'm more overextended than junior high cafeteria meatloaf. I'm not sure how it happened, but I've become the circus performer spinning 75 plates on sticks; the only thing missing is the band frantically playing Sabre Dance. I believe George Jetson said it best: "Jane, stop this crazy thing!"

But I'm not complaining (that's a no-no....see #8, below). I'm explaining that I'm an expert in being busy, overwhelmed, inundated, overextended, burnt, etc. Eskimos have myriad terms for snow, but we modern urbanites have endless descriptors for the state of being worn out. I'd like to share what I've learned about remaining relatively sane in spite of mega-harriedness.

First, a test. Nearly everyone considers themselves busy to the point of overwhelmed, but few truly are at that point. The following is a test question to see how close you are.

You're in the midst of a horrendously busy day, driving to complete an errand. As you go around a curve, you see that the road far ahead has been closed and a solid mile of immobile vehicles is hopelessly backed up. There's no chance of escaping a delay of an hour or two (and: you have no cell phone).

In this situation, your response is to:
A. Fret, curse, sweat, and squirm, or...
B. Recline back your seat, smile a beatific smile, and feel a profound sense of joyful well-being wash over you

Most people would answer A. Such people have not yet reached the breaking point. For the truly under-the-gun, traffic jams and post office customer lines are Cancun. If you've been there (the breaking point, not Mexico), you understand.

The following are ten survival tricks for the massively inundated...and preventative measures for everyone else. I'm no exemplar: I don't follow them all religiously myself. But I'm of the very firm opinion that the best people to seek out for weight loss advice are the chronically overweight.

1. Don't Keep Reinventing Wheels
It's easy to get so caught up in the flow of tasks that you never take time to evaluate the big picture and rig up short-cuts for recurring issues. Devise templated email responses. Create macros to automate oft-repeated computer activities. Write up thoughtful manuals for subordinates (to avert Delegation Fallacy Syndrome, where the people helping you manage tasks become, themselves, tasks to manage). Time so invested is wisely spent.

2. Change Venue
Don't get "stuck". Bring your laptop to a cafe. Take your cellphone to a park. Edit writing on a subway (this one works
really well for some reason). Just move around. Diners make swell offices.

3. Prioritize Fun
Day after day, the tasks at hand may fill all gaps like liquid cement. Before you know it, you've become a lifeless zombie (witness the average CEO). The trick is to make fun a high-priority task. A movie isn't just something you squeeze into your down time when you
have no down time. You must aggressively clear your schedule to catch a movie or show, take a drive or a walk, hang out in a sake bar...if for no other reason than to heighten your ability to get more done (at much higher quality) after the refresher.

4. Return Emails ASAP
It's essential to prevent the accumulation of various Scary Mountains. Email's one of the worst. If you receive a few dozen emails per day and defer answering half of them, you'll face a queue of a hundred to-replies within a week. Answer as they arrive to stay on top of the flow. Learn the fine art of being terse without projecting brusqueness.

5. Stay Up Late
It's obviously impossible for those who work 9-5, but freelancers and self-employed should consider that late nights are quiet and devoid of real-life distractions, email and phone calls. If you can stave off fatigue, you'll find that you can get far more done at 3 am (and in a more relaxed frame of mind) than at 3pm while life is blasting at you.

6. Buy Time
Don't blindly follow patterns of thriftiness when time's a greater factor than money. Everything's relative, of course. A CEO might rent a helicopter to fly to a friend's wedding rather than lose a few hours of productivity while driving. The rest of us, who'd normally circle rather than pay for a parking garage, might consider whether, in certain instances, delay and stress cost more, in the end, than the twenty bucks.

7. Exercise
The busier you are, the more necessary daily workouts become. Neutralize stress. Increase your body's ability to sit in an office chair or withstand whatever other repetitive punishment you throw at it. Lose weight which can strain movement and pride (physical and mental stress!). Plus there's the reinvigoration tactic of evacuating to the gym whenever you're too glazed and dopey/useless to work effectively. This beats napping (both are addictive, and I always try to choose the positive addiction).

8. Don't Ever Complain
Everyone
thinks they're overwhelmed. Merely busy people don't understand how deeply overwhelmed it's possible to get, and tend to grow angry and competitive at the suggestion anyone can be busier than they are - even if they watch the national average of four hours of TV per day and spend their weekends bedding-and-breakfasting. This pride-in-overwork meme stems from some weird twisted puritanism I don't fully understand. In any case, complaining always backfires, so suck it up.

Corollary: Don't use inundation as an excuse - for being late, turning down invitations, etc. It won't wash. You think you're so busy? Hey, everyone is busy! I'm busy! So...what's your real excuse?? Worse, the phrase "I'm busy" has evolved into a widely-acknowledged expression of brushing-off. If that's not what you intend, then find some other excuse.

9. Don't Stop Getting Into New Things And Meeting New People
"I don't need new hobbies, I don't need new friends." This is a trap busy people get into. Such people slowly ossify. If you lose your curiosity - if you allow yourself to crystallize and block off all possible tangents - you lose the value of life. And nothing's worth that.

10. Be a Chowhound
A wonderful bite on the way to a meeting or errand makes all the difference in the world.

1 comment:

Paul Trapani said...

Vouching for #2, doing it right now. Works really well. You would think you'd be less productive working in a cafe or diner but opposite is true.

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