How to be Relaxed, Even When You’re Busy


I have a hypothesis. That hypothesis is that you’re level of stress isn’t related to how busy you are. Instead, stress comes from a perceived lack of control over your busyness. If you are incredibly busy, but feel you have 100% control over your time, you won’t be stressed. If you have only a moderate workload, but have no control, it doesn’t take much to burn you out.

The important word in that last paragraph is “perceived”. If you actually have complete control over your schedule, but you perceive yourself being enslaved to your to-do list, you’ll still end up stressed. Perceived control is a bit more flexible, so the way to stay relaxed is to change your perceptions.

What does it mean to have control over your time?

I’d define control as having the ability to decide whether or not to do a task without major consequences. This means that you could stop doing something and the world wouldn’t end. The side-effects aren’t so unimaginably awful that you couldn’t seriously consider doing nothing.

Your level of perceived control is based on where you draw the line for what is and isn’t a major consequence. If you draw that line too far, you might end up feeling you have to do everything. When every non-action results in something unacceptably awful, you will feel forced to work.

The key to relaxed productivity is to understand that, you have more control over your time than you think. If you looked into the consequences for not doing anything, there would be only a short list that you see as completely unacceptable. You might not feel great about canceling a commitment or missing a phone call, but the world isn’t going to end.

Perceived Control is About Attitude

There’s an easy counter argument to my suggestion that you have more control over your time than you think. That is, if you stopped doing work, you might accept the consequences in the short-term, but in the long-run the consequences will be unacceptable.

Consider eating. In the short-term, you have complete control over this. I can skip lunch and save myself an hour. But in the long-run, I have to eat. If I avoid eating for a few weeks or more, I might starve to death. The short-term consequence is feeling a bit hungry. The long-term consequence is death. And death sounds pretty unacceptable to me.

The reason this argument doesn’t hold is that relaxed productivity is about perceived control. It isn’t actually changing your behavior. It’s about feeling you have the ability to stop, not actually stopping. The goal isn’t to justify being lazy. The goal is to reduce the constrictions you feel surround your time.

I’m Busy, But I’m in Control

I’m a busy person. In today’s world, that’s probably a redundant sentence. Everyone is busy. But I’m in control. I have the ability to choose what gets finished today, or whether nothing is finished. That attitude of control raises my stress threshold, so I can handle more while staying relaxed.

How to Get Control

There are a few paths that can increase your perceived schedule control. Once again, the key is attitude and not action. Set up your life so you feel you have more flexibility than you might actually use. Here are a few of the methods I’ve been using to have relaxed productivity:

1) Replace Hard Deadlines with Soft Deadlines

A hard deadline is one given by the outside world. Most of us face a hard deadline in April, otherwise you’ll get a visit from the CRA (IRS for the Americans here). Soft deadlines are the deadlines we set ourselves. If you set up your productivity system to focus on soft deadlines, your level of control improve.

The best way to switch to soft deadlines, in my opinion, is the WD To-Do method, which I wrote about here.

2) Change Your Vocabulary

Your words create your thoughts. Your thoughts create your mood. And if your words are about how you have no control over your time, your mood will be wanting to pull your hair out.

Telling yourself you’re busy is fine. It’s probably true. But try to avoid talking about all the things you “have” to do. If you do this, stop and remind yourself that you can walk away at any time. Most of the things you “have” to do, won’t seem life threatening on further examination.

3) Engineer a Life Based on Time-Control

This last step isn’t a quick solution. The ultimate goal for living a relaxed, yet meaningful life, would be complete time-control. Knowing that you have near perfect choice over what you choose to do.

Go from being an employee to self-employment and freelance. Save enough money in reserve so you are never forced to earn that next paycheck. Hire a virtual assistant to save time on tasks that don’t need your personal attention. If you make design choices in your life, you can avoid some of the schedule-control problems most people face every day.

What level of control do you feel you have?

  • J.D. Meier

    I agree — reframing is powerful.

    For example, when I have task overload, I remind myself to shift from a “backlog-burndown” to a “value-delivered” mindset. I also remind myself my “have tos” are really “choose tos.”

    We may not always get to choose what’s on our plate, but we can choose how we eat it. The fact that we control that gap between the stimulus and the response is powerful — and it’s the key to personal effectiveness.

  • jackmo

    I agree about lack of control causing people to feel stressed. One technique that I’ve always found useful is to recognise when you are getting stressed.

    Easier said then done, but if you realise you are stressed you can take a step back and force yourself to put things in perspective and approach any problems with a detached viewpoint.

  • Tim Brownson

    As hypotheses go Scott it’s not really ‘out there’ or radical and I don’t think many sensible people would disagree with what you’re saying.

    Stress is always in the mind of the beholder because there is no such thing as stress as we are talking about it, other than in people’s minds. It’s more or less always present because of the belief of not being in control of any given situation. In fact I can’t think of a single thing that causes stress that doesn’t fit that pattern. Stress because of ill health, work pressure, marital difficulties, and money problems etc are always because of a perceived, or actual, lack of control.

    Having said that, it’s still an interesting and thought provoking post.

  • Diego

    Interesting and timely for me. Thanks again for a great post.

  • Scott Young


    I wouldn’t say most of my ideas are that radical. Really revolutionary ideas would require some unusual experiences, and I don’t have enough of those to add something radical each day.

    But, I wanted to write a post about the distinction with “feeling busy” and “being busy”. Seeing as I’ve noticed the two don’t need to be the same.

    Thanks for the comment.


  • DanGTD


    For implementing GTD you might try out my application for time management and productivity,

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, schedules and a calendar.

    Hope you like it.

  • Haneefah

    I love what Scott is saying about setting soft deadlines. I think that I am too strict on myself and in turn I never really feel free to do anything! I feel like if it doesn’t get done at a specific time then it is a failure on my part. But now I see that it isn’t completely true because not everything needs a deadline; Itjust needs to get done. and this whole process goes on in my mind and it creates a prison for me.