You Are Busier Than Your To-Do List

One night you will wrap up early after spending the day working on your social enterprise, business, or non-profit. Exhausted, you will take one last you look at the list of tasks you completed that day. And the list will look small. You will feel more exhausted than you think you ought to, given the few tasks you’ve worked through that day. You will begin to wonder whether you are being melodramatic about how busy you’ve been lately—you’ll begin to question whether you’re efficient or resilient enough to manage the project you’re undertaking. You might end up laying in bed several nights in a row thinking about all of this.

Around a year into my two years as Founding Creative Director of House Conspiracy, this happened to me. The manic blur of 90-hour weeks that came with launching the organisation had faded to a more manageable 45-or-so, but I was still exhausted, and I still felt as busy as ever. At first I chalked it up to fatigue—but I had taken a couple of short holidays, and I had a well-regulated sleep cycle. Being unrested didn’t feel like a full explanation.

I began to take note of what I was thinking about at any given time—I did a 168-hour time diary that focused not only on my activities and tasks but also on my thoughts. After some reflection at the end of this week-long process, I noticed a model of delineation that I think explains why those of us in entrepreneurial leadership roles continue to feel just as busy, even as our active work hours decrease.

Let me note now that House Conspiracy is a small organisation. I have no illusions that I spent two years running the equivalent of some large bureaucracy or multinational enterprise. In reality, I ran a small arts space in Brisbane’s West End. And it was good; I don’t mean to belittle what I did in that role—I only mean to illustrate that this model is drawn from my time at the helm of a relatively small organisation. You don’t have to be in charge of seven (or even six) figures of turnover to feel overwhelmed. What’s significant is this: you are in charge of something (or a set of somethings) other than yourself.

I think we need to delineate between two different kinds of busyness: Task-Oriented Busyness, and what I have come to call Responsibility Busyness. The former can be easily quantified—it’s the number of tasks you have and the amount of time it takes you to complete them—but the latter is more complicated to gauge, because responsibility is ever-shifting, ever-changing, and (most importantly) ever-present.

Responsibility Busyness is about more than the anxieties around your own personal failure; it’s also about the co-workers, clients, and partners who you feel you’ll let down if you fail. It’s about not knowing if you’re doing enough—it’s about the brain-space that is always occupied by running over yesterday’s, today’s, and tomorrow’s operations. This is why you will feel guilty when your to-do list seems small, or when you finish working before 9pm, or when you go out for a drink instead of wrapping up work on a spreadsheet.

And that’s the thing: there can be no real reprieve from responsibility. Even on holidays, there is always the chance you’ll get an urgent email, a marketing enquiry, or a phone call from a co-worker telling you a scissor-lift has arrived unannounced in your organisation’s driveway at 7pm on a Friday (yes, this actually happened). Absurdly specific examples aside, the point is this: the busy feeling is justified, even as the number of tasks you handle decreases.

Luckily, this feeling can be managed. there are a couple key strategies I’ve come to employ in order to take the reins of Responsibility Busyness.

Start by drawing up a list of all the tasks and goals associated with your role. We’ll refer to these collectively as KPIs. If you’re working across multiple roles, draw up KPIs for each role. Then, divide the KPIs into two sets: a ‘Bare Minimum’ set, and a ‘Success’ set. Put all the tasks required to keep the organisation and those you work with afloat in the ‘Bare Minimum’ set. This might include things like ensuring payroll happens; that bills get paid; that clients, partners, and employees are communicated with; and that basic output and correspondence is delivered according to schedule. The ‘Success’ set of KPIs is where you should include tasks and goals that contribute to the growth of the organisation and its vision. This might include developing new and ambitious programming or outputs, increasing revenue, or chasing client and partnership leads.

Next, automate your Bare Minimum KPI set. Schedule repeating reminders on your phone or computer according to your schedule’s needs—in the Apple ecosystem, notifications from the built-in Reminders app don’t clear from your phone’s lock screen until you tell them to. I schedule all my repeating reminders to trigger at 7am. That way, I know from the moment I wake up the bare minimum I need to complete on any given day.

If you are comprehensive in your management of these lists, then you can manage your Responsibility Busyness by completing the Bare Minimum set of tasks each day, week, and month. By segregating and automating the foundational elements of your role, it becomes easier to feel secure in managing your responsibilities.

If you reliably complete your Bare Minimum to-do list every day, you no longer have to worry so much about things falling apart in the near-term. Sure, the Responsibility Busyness will still be there, but if you can recognise it for what it is, separate it, and manage it accordingly, then you can spend more time and cognition on the sort of tasks that will allow you to drive your organisational vision forward.


Originally published by Impact Boom, May 2018.