• Casper Yeow

How to make 'busy' work for us

Updated: Jan 18, 2019


"It is not enough to be busy...the question is: what are we busy about?"

- Henry David Thoreau


What wood? What trees?

When you're in the thick of fighting fires in your life, it's difficult to tell the wood from the trees. Initially, I tried bulldozing my way through, hoping that putting in more hours at work, sacrificing more sleep, and rolling the dice on one more investment (that typically I hardly knew anything about) would magically lift me out of the quandary that I'm in overnight. These just quickened the downward trajectory until something in me said "STOP! THINK!"


Stop and think!

Stop and think?! Don't have time? How many times have we indulged in a bender on Netflix, YouTube, Fortnight or the like (feel free to insert your vice here) and then blamed our non-productivity on being too busy or having 'no time.' Although we often use them interchangeably, the terms "busyness" and "having no time" are not synonymous. The truth is that we all have more time than we think, but somehow we all manage to be busy beyond what's available. What are we busy with?


Think small

Anyway, good thing I did (stop and think). Given my very fragile state of mind at the time, the best I could do was resign myself to thinking about the distinct possibility of having to work until the day I die or at least until I was 75. As I wrote in my previous post, and in the interest of cutting a long story short, I decided that if that was the plan, I'd better get healthy. So, I impulsively bought myself some fitness DVDs I saw on an infomercial, jumped around like a madman for 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week, and went from a sub 90 kg 5' 6" guy to a 74 kg 5' 6" guy in a year and a half. It then dawned on me that this principle of 'doing a little every day over a prolonged period' could be applied elsewhere in my life.


I'll be damned!

As I started to feel healthier, my thinking expanded. I thought about and looked deeply into the major arenas of my life (family, friends, profession, church etc.). The realisation that I did not have anything in place to progressively improve in any of those areas was a shocking one. Figuratively speaking, apart from my physical health at that point, I was damned! Not like going to hell or anything like that but damned in terms of a stark absence of progress in my life. Without progress, there was little hope. With little hope motivation lacked. Not addressed quickly, it was a natural death spiral.


First things first

MUST...DO...SOMETHING! I went to my rather bare bookshelf, as if led there, and picked out a book someone (cannot remember who) had given me as a present years ago. Whoever it was did a good job of early detection! Stephen R Covey's classic and the granddaddy of contemporary self-help books, "7 Habits of Highly Effective People." In it, he categorises the things we fill our time with into the following 4 'quadrants.' (To all you Covey purists, please forgive me for my simplistic interpretation.)

  • Quadrant 1 (Q1) - Important and Urgent. These are pressing matters that have to be addressed now (or often yesterday) or else someone's world will end or at least the day will end badly for them.

  • Quadrant 2 (Q2) - Important and Not Urgent. These are things we ought to do, but we often don't because either we don't feel like it, we're too busy fighting fires in Q1, or there's a TV episode just screaming out to you. Left undone, they eventually transform into Important and Urgent.

  • Quadrant 3 (Q3) - Not Important and Urgent. Simply put, these are distractions. Phone calls, emails, text messages, unscheduled visitors, TV and the like. More now than ever, we are highly conditioned, like Pavlov's dog, to respond to them immediately because you never know right? They could be important...or not!

  • Quadrant 4 (Q4) - Not Important and Not Urgent. This is where things like entertainment fit in. Effortless and pleasurable, they call out to us when things get boring or difficult. Contrary to what some may think, such things do have their place...for a price! More on these in a future post.

The Compound Effect

The stuff we do to form our Core Habitual Rhythm (CHR), what will hopefully be our positive habits, fall fairly and squarely in Q2. The small, rhythmic, sometimes boring stuff. Their effects are often not noticeable day to day. BUT, one day some time down the track you and others will notice, and it will be magnificent! This is often referred to as 'The Compound Effect,' a phrase coined by Darren Hardy, through his best-selling book by the same title.


It is worth noting that this principle also applies to destructive habits or habits of avoidance. The balancing of this 'good stuff vs bad stuff' ledger cannot be avoided; you either pay now or you pay later. If you find yourself dealing with a lot of Q1s, my guess is that you're not investing enough time in Q2, and investing way too much in Q3s and Q4s. Ask me how I know!


A really, really, really cool story (trust me it's really cool)

To really ram home the message about the compound effect, I suggest you read about its effect on the British cycling team, transforming it from laughing stock to world domination in just five years, as told by James Clear in his New York best seller, Atomic Habits. (Click here to read an excerpt)


Next stop, I'll try to break down how I went about identifying the habits to form my CHR and adapting a system from Garry J White's book, Warrior, gamify progress tracking and self-accountability. You gotta have fun and keep yourself accountable somehow! In the meantime, STOP and THINK.



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