Eric Karjaluoto

The Zen of Busyness

Over the past few years, I’ve worked to simplify my life. Mostly, this has been a positive exercise. I now have more time, and am less tense. However, I’ve also fallen into spirals of doubt, in which I plan scenarios out—but fail to follow through.

It’s understandable that I take this approach, given how much I help other groups plan. However, when I plan too much for myself, I slow down, and get confused. This can lead me to a depressed state.

Recently, I noticed something. In spite of common wisdom arguing the opposite, I’m happier when busy. I’m not talking about the distraction that comes from checking your smartphone every 30 seconds. I’m referring to the way complete absorption in a task leads to clarity.

Such tasks might involve making dinner, or reorganizing a closet. I also experience this sensation on long runs, or when walking in the forest. At the studio, this experience seems most present in work that has defined goals. So, planning a UI, or completing a set of wires can be fun; whereas, responding to email for an entire afternoon isn’t.

The important distinction here is between distraction and busyness. The former is neither pleasant nor productive. It’s a curse borne by modern workers who are always doing something—that doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. The latter is invigorating. It is pure action, unencumbered by stuff that just looks like work (e.g., meetings, email, team-building, time sheets).

This realization is affecting the way I act. It changes how I feel, both in the studio, and outside it. This mindset allows me to push aside my doubts—albeit temporarily—and gain a sense of direction.

If you’d like to do the same, I’ve boiled this approach down to a few key parts: focus, speed, and sequence.

Focus is the most important of the three. Although multitasking is sometimes necessary, it’s inefficient. This lack of focus divides your attention. It leaves you weighing tasks, and wondering what to do next. So, your work takes longer, and you do it less well. Parceling work into blocks, in which you focus on one task at a time, is an easy way to increase your efficiency (and sense of control).

I achieve focus by following a few steps. I clear my desk, turn off smartphone notifications, and close my desktop email client. Then, I write out what specific work I intend to complete (e.g., Finish website comps). After that, I break my work into smaller tasks I can check off, as I complete them. Sometimes these tasks seem granular, but I benefit from this clarity.

I allow no other project to impede the one I’m working on. This is all I will look at until I’m finished. (Admittedly, such discipline can be difficult to consistently maintain.)

Speed is another key part of this approach. The longer I work on a project, the less excited I am by it. This leads to me to whine, get sloppy, and drag tasks out. (Or, I start to wonder if what I’m doing has any greater meaning—which leads to an existential quagmire.) So, I move as fast as I can, to maintain enthusiasm for the task at hand.

Finally, there’s sequence. This is the carrot. I need motivation to focus and move fast. I find the necessary motivation in having something else to get to. This might involve a new client project, or some internal experiment. Either way, I operate better knowing that once I’ve finished this project, I get to work on another interesting one.

To summarize: pick a project; focus on it; work fast; and know what’s next. Simple, right?

I can’t say this approach will work for you. For me, though, it’s been a sort of revelation. I can’t always see the “right” course of action. That said, I enjoy working, and when I’m getting things done, I find myself excited, happy, and at ease.

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