You've read about the Tulip Bubble, the mania that drove up the price of rare tulips in Holland in the 1600s to six times the average salary, and the stock exchange fervour that preceded the crash in 1929. More recently, we experienced the tech and American housing bubbles. Today, however, our biggest concern, according to Silicon Valley author-researcher Greg McKeown, is a busyness bubble.
"In each of these bubbles there is a build-up of irrational exuberance and people get caught up in a societal myth. When the bubble bursts, everyone can't figure out why they were so crazy," he says in an interview.
The crazy idea feeding this bubble is that we can have – and can do – it all. No need for priorities. No need for time to reflect. No need for balance. Just pack as much as you can into your days as possible.
"It's totally not true. If you try to fit it all in you get stress, exhaustion, unsatisfactory relationships, bits of progress in lots of activities but nothing you are proud of. What you get is the stuff life regrets and career regrets are made of," he says.
Instead, he preaches "essentialism," a disciplined process for saying no to many good things that parade before you so you can say yes to the few really great options. That process involves three steps, starting with understanding the many trivial things and the vital few in our lives.
Boredom used to be a feature of our lives, but not any more. We have so many activities to fill our lives – and through social media so many people as well – that any time boredom starts to emerge we beat it back with activity, usually inconsequential activity. That elbows out more important pursuits, notably thinking. "We need to create space, starting with 10 minutes a day but in the end it's much more, to think and ponder," he says.
Once you understand the essentials and non-essentials in your life, you want to eliminate the non-essentials. He calls it "extreme selectivity." He shares a 90 per cent rule: Consider how committed you are to an activity, and if it's less than 90 per cent commitment, don't go along, but say no. The third step is to develop processes that ensure the essentials have pride of place in your life. For example, he is committed to both family and work, but family is supreme. Unfortunately, in the day-to-day bubble, work can overwhelm him, taking precedence. So Monday night is set aside to always be with family. No energy has to be wasted on making decisions. It's a weekly event – an essential.
If you can fit it in you should fit it in:
Many of us believe there is a moral obligation to do anything that is good. Indeed, he met someone recently who actually made it a New Year's resolution to say yes to everything, and conceded, "I'm going out of my mind with stress." There is limited time available in our lives, but we don't put limits on our choices. When faced with a tradeoff, say between family and work, we lurch for a bit of both. The truth is: We can try to avoid tradeoffs, but we can't escape them. We have to make a choice.
If everyone is doing it, I need to be doing it:
This is, of course, what feeds bubbles. "Humans like to go with the herd. But the problem is that we are so aware today of everything everyone is doing because of social media – we know the best of what they have done every day," he says in the interview. And so we want to cram that into our lives as well as our own regular pursuits. He counters there is a joy to missing out, and we should discover it.
Being a team player means always saying yes – with a smile:
Corporate citizenship today tells us we need to help others, whatever our own pressures. He tells of a woman who never said no, but negotiated with her boss to have five days off for her wedding. Sure enough, something came up, and she was asked as a good team player to reduce her time off. She pushed back, and said no. Moreover, she and her husband put it into their wedding vows that they would place marriage over everything else. "She will never regret spending five days focusing on her wedding and turning down that important work from her boss," he notes.
I'll stay up late and get it done:
Someone recently told him, proudly, she was so busy she was surviving on four hours of sleep a night. "Why boast about this negative in her life? Because she doesn't see it as a negative – she sees it as a positive, a measure of self-esteem," he says. But he disagrees: Adequate sleep is essential for high performers.
Ignore the myths. Fight the busyness bubble. Pare down to essentials.
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter