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If Busy Were the Indicator of Success, We’d All Be Billionaires (Part One)

Meet Tonia.

As a corporate development director, wife, mother of two young girls, PTA leader, and board member for several nonprofits, Tonia is a classic post-1970s feminist success story. She’s at the top of her field, she takes her kids to school each morning, and she’s at her desk by 8:30am every day.

In other words, Tonia is smart, driven, and totally fried. 

If you were to bump into her on the street and ask “How’s it going?” chances are she’ll either dash past with a quick “crazy” and a knowing eye roll – or stop and tell you about her piling deadlines, overloaded inbox, and meetings she’s running late for.

Tonia came to me a few months ago because she felt over-scheduled and under-appreciated. She liked her job, but felt stuck in middle management. She wanted to be a better mom, but couldn’t find enough time. She also wanted to be more “fulfilled”… if only she knew what the hell that meant.

Tall order.

Tonia thought she would be more successful at work if she could tame her self-described monkey brain, but the more she talked, the more it became clear that – deep down – she didn’t want to. Calming the wild beast between her ears, even temporarily, would mean coming face-to-face with something she didn’t really want to admit:

Being a passenger in her career was a lot easier than taking the wheel.

Tonia didn’t understand at the time she was sabotaging herself by intentionally taking on too many projects at work, home, and in her community – then turning around and using those projects as an excuse for why she hadn’t achieved her own (vague) goals. She hid behind the idea that she was too busy, when the truth was she simply preferred frenzy to fear. Tonia was ambitious and had aspirations to move up at work but as soon as she allowed herself to picture what that could actually look like (“Maybe I do want to be VP”) her mind would auto-pilot into “unknowns” that scared her (“Would I have enough time to spend with my girls? Could I make the budget and manage the team at the same time? Could I handle the stress?”), then, to justify her own fear-based decision to remain stagnant, she would convince herself that the opportunity wasn’t a fit for her anyway (“They’d probably want me to travel like Craig does – I can’t do that.”) Secretly, Tonia knew her uncanny knack for talking herself out of anything remotely uncomfortable is what really kept her “stuck” in middle management – so to satisfy her desire to feel respected without the risk, she threw herself into volunteering and leaned on “busy” like a crutch.

Sound familiar?

If so, you’re on Tonia’s track to burnout and nagging discontent because – let’s get honest here – busy alone doesn’t mean anything. Monkey brain, scatter brain, mommy brain, and all the other lame blocks we allow to get between where we are and where we want to be don’t mean anything either.

To make significant traction (<——— key word) in your career, you’ve got to get rid of the mental clutter so you have space to unapologetically define and then focus on what matters most. 

Mental clutter is the -ick that lies beneath all the over-scheduling, worrying, arguing, gossiping, wasting time, and other numbing we do to deny its existence. But here’s the thing:

Whatever chaos you’re living in is being created by the choices you are making. 

For example, Tonia chose her quasi-manic state by by taking on too many nonprofit responsibilities. No one forced her to do that. Likewise, I’ve met other women (as I’m sure you have) who live in chaos because they choose to be everything to everyone else while bobbing at sea in their own lives.

Hence they become the ever multi-takers who may seem like they have it pulled together but secretly have eight Taco Bell wrappers in their floorboard and check their email at midnight. To make real progress, you have to get rid of busy and replace it with focus. The million dollar question, of course, is how? We’ll talk discuss a few ideas in Part Two later this week.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Elizabeth Damewood Gaucher April 3, 2012 at

This is one of the best examinations of this issue I have ever read. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I’ve ever read something that takes this on in the clear and concise way you do here.

I think the overarching issue of hiding in a safe place that you then complain is keeping you from focusing on success is critical. In my observation it applies to men and women, and also applies to personal and professional lives. There are many touchy issues here, but it is what it is. If you WAIT to focus on your marriage, if you WAIT to focus on your children, if you WAIT to focus on your career, if you WAIT to focus on your friendships……well, you have the famous play, and not much else.

Thank you for being willing to articulate, without blame but with responsibility, the real reason so many of us are in unsatisfying places and whining about it. You rock.

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emily April 6, 2012 at

EDG – YOU rock. Thanks for reading!

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