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What is the Busy Spiral and how can it trap you?


Barnaby Lashbrooke

Founder and CEO of Time etc, author of The Hard Work Myth

7 minute read

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Most people assume that feeling busy means they’re being productive. The Busy Spiral shows what really happens to your productivity as you get busier and why it’s essential to stay out of the busy spiral as much as possible.

The world’s most successful entrepreneurs and leaders spend considerable time and resources staying outside of the busy cycle and there’s a good reason for this - the further into the busy spiral you go, the lower your productivity.

But why? At the top of the busy spiral, you have more time for planning, ideas, strategy, decisions, focus and delegation. As a result you spend your time on high quality work on high impact tasks - the tasks that move your business forwards.

As you feel busier and move further into the spiral you start to have less time for planning, ideas, strategy, decisions and delegation and, as a result, you start doing low quality work (because you don’t have enough time to complete tasks to a high standard) on medium impact tasks (because you haven’t had enough time to plan high impact tasks). Ironically, despite being absolutely essential, people’s ability to delegate massively reduces at this stage in the busy spiral, because they consider themselves “too busy” to hand over tasks to someone else.

At this stage you’ll unavoidably descend further into the spiral unless you take radical action (see below for our tips on how to get out of the spiral). At the bottom of the spiral, you’ll find yourself with no time for planning, ideas, strategy, decisions, focus or delegation and, as a result, you’ll find yourself working long hours on low impact tasks - the kind of tasks that someone else should be doing. This is when you'll feel at your absolutely busiest but, in fact, have your lowest productivity.

As business owners and leaders at the bottom of the spiral experience the lowest business growth rates, higher stress levels and lower overall business survival rates, it’s easy to understand why it’s so important to stay at the top of the busy spiral. Stay at the top of the busy spiral and not only will you feel less busy and less stressed, but your productivity will be at its highest possible level thanks to the time you’ll have for planning, ideas, strategy, decisions, focus and delegation.


How to get out of the busy spiral

Once you’re in the busy spiral it can be very difficult to get back out again - in fact many business owners never climb out of the busy spiral, once they’re inside. Part of the reason for this is that it’s a self-fulfilling machine - the further you go onto the spiral means the less time you have to think and strategize meaning you can’t figure out how to get out of the spiral and therefore, the further in you go.

That’s why successful entrepreneurs and leaders work so hard preventing themselves from entering the spiral in the first place - they know their ability to function and succeed as an entrepreneur depends on staying out of the spiral. In contrast, many small business owners are either permanently at the bottom of the spiral - too busy doing, doing, doing to see how to get out or, if they’re luckier, are in a constant cycle of entering the spiral, working tirelessly to get back out of it, staying out of it for a bit and then, when being in the spiral all feels like a distant memory, falling back into it when they get busier and busier. Before they know it, they’re back at the bottom and the cycle starts again.

The only way to truly build a high qualify business, the only way to grow your business and the only way to live a low stress life whilst running your business is to get out of the spiral and stay out.

Here’s how:


If you think you’re in the spiral, stop what you’re doing. Book at least two days, back to back, away from work, away from your normal routine, away from your business and away from doing. This can seem almost impossible to do, but it’s a vital step in being able to slow your descent into the spiral. You have to break your routine to stop the spiral. And, you need time to think.

You’re going to use this vital time away from your normal routine to think and plan.


An important part of getting out of the spiral is to make time for thinking and planning. Not once, but on a regular basis. Think about what you want to achieve over the next three months and what you’re going to need to do to get there. Challenge your ideas to make sure you’re really focusing on the things that will really make a difference to you and your business. Make a list of tasks that’ll have to be completed and, importantly, think about who is going to do them (hint: not you). If you don’t have a team already, how will you find people to help? You could use the Eisenhower Matrix at this stage to decide what you should do yourself, what you should delegate and what can be safely left for later.

Now that you’ve got a list of things that need to be done, you need to delegate.


Delegation is the bed-rock of any successful business. It’s a skill you need to learn and embrace in order to be able to turn your business into a long-term, scalable and successful business. Not to mention, essential to you, as the business owner, being able to live a low stress life. Delegating like your life depends on it is a vital component of staying out of the spiral. There’s no doubt about it, try and do everything yourself and you’ll get further and further into the spiral. There are only so many things it’s possible for one person to do. Most business owners whose businesses stay small simply don’t delegate anywhere near enough as they should. Now, a word about how to get over your fear of delegating. In a nutshell, follow these and you can’t go far wrong:

  1. Don’t expect delegated tasks to be done as well as you would do them. It rarely matters in reality.
  2. Be prepared to give full instruction and to help more than you think - lots of inexperienced delegators hate this - they want to hand over a task and then abdicate themselves, removing themselves from the task. But this isn’t how successful delegators do things. They remain on-hand. They provide unlimited help.
  3. Don’t expect to save as much time as it would take you to do a task yourself - you probably won’t but, again it doesn’t matter. Experienced delegators know that if they save a net total of 20 minutes by delegating an hour long task they’ve still won - because that’s 20 minutes they wouldn’t otherwise have.
  4. Don’t build trust slowly over time, rather trust by default. Only remove it if someone breaks your trust. Experienced delegators trust by default - they place faith on the people they’re delegating to, even if they’ve never worked with them before. They know that it takes far too long to build trust naturally, so they choose to trust - and the effect is wildly positive.

If you don’t have anyone to help (and even if you do) you should use this time to sign up for an experienced executive assistant on subscription at Time etc. If you don’t have anyone to help (and even if you do) you should use this time to sign up for an experienced executive assistant on subscription at Time etc.


Now that you’ve stopped the spiral, spent time thinking and planning and crafted a list of things to delegate to others, you should feel better - and for good reason - you’re well on your way of getting out of the spiral. There’s something else that’s really important to do though, and many business owners overlook this when they’re escaping the spiral. You must protect your time. Permanently. From today onwards, without fail.

What does this mean? Well, it means instead of doing what most business owners do and constantly identifying tasks that need to be done in their business and doing them themselves, without paying too much attention to whether they actually need to be done, you must start treating the limited time you have every day with more respect. That means nothing makes it on to your to-do list without first being put through a vital test - does this task need to be done. If it does need to be done, does it need to be done by me? At every step of the day you need to aim to keep your to-do list as short as possible. And that means getting much better at deciding not to do things at all or delegating those things to others.

It means having so much respect for your time that you don’t allow other people to give you tasks just because you answered their call or email or allowed them to talk to you. You’ll need to get a lot better at establishing whether the task needs to be done, when it needs to be done and by who. You’ll need to become an expert in guiding other people on how to solve their own issues, rather than taking them on yourself.

Put it all together

Only when you do all of these things will you finally get out and stay out of the spiral - but when you do, you’ll be joining an incredible club of some of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs - the entrepreneurs and leaders who grow long-term, sustainable, scalable and exciting businesses without working themselves into the ground.

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About the author

Barnaby Lashbrooke is the founder and CEO of Virtual Assistant service Time etc as well as the author of The Hard Work Myth, recently recommended by Sir Richard Branson. Barnaby is a Forbes Columnist on productivity and is also an accomplished entrepreneur, selling more than $35 million worth of services.

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