If something is important enough to make you feel harried, stressed, anxious, distracted, unsettled (etc. etc.), shouldn’t it also be important enough for you to make time and space to properly act on it?

The logical answer is yes, but part of what keeps us caught in the cycle of busy-ness is that we usually behave as if the answer is no.

We create an Importance Imbalance when what is important enough to get a significant portion of our attention and mental energy is not what is important enough to get our time and action. As a result, we carry those items with us, mentally and emotionally, but never process them. We never get rid of them. They just keep building up and making us feel scattered, and we start believing we don’t have enough time to take care of everything.

Put your action where your attention is

The best way to deal with this is to bring balance back to Importance. Decide that that which gets your attention is what will also get your action. By dedicating your attention and the feeling of busy-ness to these tasks or projects, you’re already expending a certain amount of energy on them. The problem is that kind of energy doesn’t move those tasks or projects any closer to completion. You have to put some action toward them as well.

One trick we play on ourselves is to put action into one task while keeping our attention on another task entirely. You do yourself no service by trying to force yourself to act on one task while remaining mentally and emotionally attached to another.

Instead of allowing yourself to separate your attention and your action in that manner, give yourself permission to put action where your attention (and energy) is already flowing. When your action meets your attention in a focus and purposeful way, you often wind up cranking through things in an effective and relatively anxiety-free manner. That, in turn, reduces your stress level, reduces your feeling of busy-ness, and (bonus!) actually gets things done.

“I was so busy, but I got nothing done.”

When we put our attention on one thing but our actions on another, we end up more anxious over the thing that didn’t get done (but got all of our attention) and we end up ignoring the things we did accomplish (because we weren’t really putting any attention on them).

Have you ever said, “I was so busy today, but I feel like I got nothing done”? What that statement usually means is, “I put action toward a lot of stuff today, but that stuff wasn’t where my attention was, so I’m left still spending mental energy on all this stuff I didn’t even touch.”

It’s not that you actually got “nothing” done; it’s that you didn’t get done any of the things that were consuming your attention. You end up tricking yourself into denying all of the things toward which you did put your action and time, and it reinforces the feeling of being perpetually busy.

If you relate to this, don’t get down on yourself. This is one of the most common “busy tricks” we pull on ourselves, and we all do it from time to time.

How to get clear on where your attention’s going

Most of us have gotten so good at splitting our attention and our action that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It is part of what keeps us stuck in a cycle of chronic busy-ness.

The key to breaking this pattern is getting clear on what it is that’s getting our attention. Once we do that, we can more effectively prioritize our actions accordingly.

Step 1: Notice what’s getting your attention

Take out a piece of paper and list the things that are weighing on your mind. Don’t filter them based on what you think “should” be getting your attention or “should” be important–just let yourself pour out whatever’s there.

Do this for at least a couple of minutes, or until you feel a sense of relief. Often just acknowledging the things that are weighing on your mind by writing them down will release some of the tension around them and leave you feeling a little lighter.

Step 2: Notice what needs your attention

Go over the list you made, and draw a little star next to those items that are urgent or time-sensitive. Those are items that most likely need your attention and that you’ll probably want to put toward the top of your action list for three reasons:

First, urgent items tend to absorb a lot of our mental energy because we know they’re urgent and we feel pressure because of that.

Second, if we don’t tend to urgent items, there is usually some negative consequence that will only add to our stress and anxiety level.

Third, getting urgent items to a point of completion often gives us a noticeable feeling of relief and accomplishment, which makes it easier to move on to the next thing on our list (momentum!).

Step 3: Notice what wants your attention

Draw a circle around the items that sort of jump out at you. They may be items that you really want to do. They may be projects that, for whatever reason, just feel particularly resonant for you right now. Don’t worry too much about the “why” behind this. Just let yourself notice which thing or things on your list really speaks to you.

These are the things that want your attention. (They may or may not overlap with the items you marked in Step 2. Don’t judge yourself either way–what wants your attention is sometimes what needs it, and is sometimes totally independent.)

These items are the ones to which your attention and energy is naturally drawn. They are also the things that we usually push down on our list when we can’t find a “practical” reason to give them priority (they’re not time-sensitive, they’re not urgent, they’re not the things we think we “should” be focusing on, etc.). As a result, these items are the ones that often end up lingering, convincing us there’s never enough time, and tricking us into believing that we never get “enough” done, all because we don’t allow ourselves action on the stuff that calls out to us.

Noticing where your energy naturally wants to go is a fantastic way of prioritizing your actions. When you can act on the things that “call out” to you, that’s when you’ll often find yourself “in the zone” or “in the flow.” And (bonus tip!) being in the flow is like throwing water on the fire of busy-ness. It quickly defuses it.

Step 4: Action time

Start by putting action toward the items you marked as priorities. Notice that your priorities might be things from Step 2 or Step 3: things that want your attention are priorities just like things that need your attention. Whether you begin acting on the items that are time-sensitive or the items that call out to you is up to you — it will depend on how time-sensitive and how strong the call is. There isn’t a “right” answer to which ones get your action + attention first.

The only rule to follow in Step 4 is this: Whatever you act on must also be what gets your attention, and whatever gets your attention must be what you act on. Don’t allow yourself to split action and attention. If you notice the split happening, pause and take a few breaths. Let yourself come back into the present moment and either re-commit to what you’re working on or allow yourself to move onto something else.

Remember to observe

As you experiment with this process, observe how it works for you. Notice how your stress levels or feelings of busy-ness change. Notice what triggers really split your attention and action. Practice noticing these things without judging yourself. (Simply said, not always easily done.)

★ What’s your trick or process for making sure your attention aligns with your action? What do you do when you notice that’s not happening?

Image Credit: Colin Harris | CC License

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