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How To Stop Being So Busy

This article was based on episode 179 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Get my Saying No Cheat Sheet when you become a member at

Why are we so busy all the time? Despite knowing (and sometimes even saying) that we want to have more time in our lives, we continue making decisions that keep us running at full speed. There are a surprising number of reasons why this happens. Dorie Clark, named one of the Top 50 business thinkers in the world by Thinkers50 and professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, points out that for one, busyness is often associated with status in America. We think we’re important if we’re busy. So we say yes to everything and keep our calendars full to the brim - even if it’s counterproductive and harming our health - because we feel more significant.

It’s also more stressful to take a breather and rethink our approach. Sometimes we would rather just keep our head down and continue with the status quo instead of admitting that what we’re doing isn’t working or that past decisions weren’t so great after all. Dorie wants to help us embrace ‘the pause’ in order to live more strategically. She just published her newest book, The Long Game; How to Be a Long-Term Thinker in a Short-Term World. Dorie sat down with me to explain how we can get ourselves and our teams to add much needed ‘whitespace’ to our busy lives in order to change the way we work for the better.


When a meeting is canceled and you suddenly have half an hour of extra time on your hands, what do you do with it? Does it just disappear into email checking? Don’t waste those unexpected gifts of found time! If you’re clear about your goals, you can take advantage when these pockets of “free time” appear to do some important work. The trick is knowing what the next action is for any given goal or project so you can jump right in.

This approach is similar to something my mother taught me as a child. She always said, if you get a cash gift, don’t put it in your wallet. Spend it on yourself right away. Once cash goes into your wallet, it gets used up by all of the other needs in your life and you’ll never get to join something special. Likewise, when you discover some found time, use it to your advantage, right away!


Because we’re so resistant to stopping and shifting directions, we need to set aside time in our schedule specifically to reflect and strategize. Block times on your calendar to do strategic thinking or a specific activity that will help advance your goals. Then, guard this time like a dragon, not a jellyfish. You want to be protective and firm, not squishy, or else everyone else’s needs will overtake this precious time. When we proactively set aside time, we chart our own destiny and cut out the work that is not helpful for where we want to go.


When an opportunity comes up, don’t ask yourself, “Can I do it?” Ask yourself, “Is this the best use of my time?” Apply this policy to meetings, phone calls, board opportunities, social gatherings, you name it.

We’re often smart enough to say yes to a great offer, and smart enough to say no to a bad offer. It’s the ones in the middle that kill our schedules. To counter this, Dorie swears by the Derek Sivers method: it’s either a hell yes, or a no. If you don’t want to really do it or you find yourself justifying why it’s a good idea, turn it down. Consider both your level of enthusiasm and how strategic it is to your goals. If it’s not a 9 or 10 on your Hell Yes meter, it’s best you say no gently.


We often avoid saying no because we feel guilty. The truth is that we tend to think the other person is more sensitive than they actually are when it’s more likely that they’ll be upset by a late or dragged out response than a simple no. If you quickly write back, apologizing that you’re not going to be able to make it, chances are no one’s feelings will get hurt. Often the drama we create is internal, not external.

If you feel like you need extra assistance with your response, Dorie recommends creating a bank of scripts for how to respond in different scenarios, which she also provides in her book The Long Game.


I often look into the future, see a wide open schedule, and think, I have tons of time in the future! I can say yes to all of these activities! Then, when the future comes, I am overbooked and overwhelmed, once again. To stop our present selves from overbooking our future selves, Dorie suggests the simple rule of treating each engagement like it would happen this week. Would you say yes to it? If not, don’t schedule it for the future. Create rules for yourself, such as the maximum amount of meetings you will do in a week, and then stick to it. Policies like these help remind us of what we really want to do.


An important managerial task is helping employees sift through and prioritize their own work. If your team is confused about their priorities, take the opportunity to strategize with them. Help them cut down on their busyness and reactivity, while learning how to proactively move forward. Help them build the skills to assess opportunities and say no on their own. Explain context so that they are able to better make the call in the future rather than coming to you.

We don’t have to live a life of busyness. We can work smarter and slower by being clear about our goals and strategically planning how to get there. It may feel uncomfortable to pause and shift course, but that’s part of the path towards success. It might feel awkward to say no to any commitments that take us away from our priorities. People that embrace the power of whitespace can lead more productive, fulfilling lives both inside and out of the office.


Get my Saying No Cheat Sheet when you become a member of the Modern Manager community at

This article was based on episode 179 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio, Amazon, and Stitcher. Never miss a worksheet, episode or article: subscribe to Mamie’s newsletter.




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