How to beat busy-ness

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How to beat busy-ness.

Having very recently retired from my full-time executive role, I am in the enviable position of deciding how I want to spend my days. It's daunting, exhilarating and unfamiliar given that virtually every day of my last 30-odd years has been full to the brim with business and family activity.

I've thrived on the busy-ness of running a business and maintaining a close family relationship. Surprisingly, the busier I've become, the more I've been able to squeeze into my day. Yes, I'm a multi-tasker but it's more than that. The longer we spend being busy, the more accomplished we become at doing it.

Some have warned I'm going to get bored within weeks. Others have said once I try a leisurely lifestyle I'll never go back to the frenetic pace of the last three decades.

Advice I've taken seriously came from someone who retired from his business at a similar age and stage to me. He planned to take some time to get some clear air, 'white space' or a chance to think, having devoted a chunk of his life to building a successful business.

He told me that, despite best intentions, he was quickly approached on a number of investment and governance opportunities which he couldn't resist. Within months he had "replaced busy with busy".

He then spent the next 12 months extracting himself from some of his commitments so he could indeed find that perfect balance between activity and productivity.

His comment reminded me of an article I read quoting journalist Eric Sevareid in the 1960s. When asked what was the gravest crisis facing the American people in the year ahead, Sevareid said: "...the rise of leisure and the fact those who have the most leisure are the least equipped to make use of it".

A provocative statement in 1961 and would probably be laughed at today given we're all busier than ever; we don't have enough time to do what we want and more than half our population experiences stress on a daily basis.

But Sevareid might have been on to something. No matter how busy and overwhelmed we are today, we have more leisure time than at any point in history.

As we've become more productive, we work fewer hours on average with computers and labour-saving devices doing in seconds what used to take days to complete. According to a US study, leisure time has increased from an average of 52 hours per week in 1950 to more than 60 hours today.

One thing that's stopped us from being less busy is the difference between physical work and cognitive work. While we may be working fewer hours physically, we are nevertheless working hard intellectually.

As the economy has shifted from manual labour to the 'knowledge industry', work is something people can't switch off. We take our jobs home with us, thinking about work during what's supposed to be our leisure time.

Warren Buffett's partner, Charlie Munger, attributes much of his success as an investor to a time management system; it appeals to me.

Referring to lawyers who sell their services by the hour, Munger decided to "sell myself the best hour of the day to improve my mind. The world can buy the rest of the time but that hour is mine."

He blocked off an hour of his work day to read, reflect and think.

That's how I'm going to spend my leisure. Busy being smart.


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