Your to do list is dragging you down. Why do tasks that do not inherently enhance the quality of your life when you could pay someone $10 and hour to do them? I learned this when my boss and I had our new computers set up at our homes. I stayed at home all day waiting for the technical person to arrive and then worked the weekend to catch up. My boss had his assistant wait at home and he got more done than I did without even having to work the weekend. Day after day I watched my boss get twice as much done as I did until I hired my own personal assistant — and after that, I looked at the tasks of daily life in a different light.

We each have big goals in our life and all big goals take time: Growing a successful career, being a good spouse, and climbing Mt. McKinley. None of these grand goals requires you to pick up the dry cleaning yourself.

Each time you do a mindless task yourself you make a statement about the value of your time. If you had an extra hour with your kids, would it be worth $10? If you had an extra hour at the office could you increase the value of your output to make up for the $10 (think: raise down the line). If you're spending a significant part of your day doing tasks that are not integral to your life goals, then you're wasting your time.

Your first thought should always be, “Do I need to do this myself?” How does a CEO create value that's bigger than herself? She has other people doing the work so she can think about big picture issues. (And in fact, you are probably a person doing this CEOs work. More incentive for you to act like the CEO of your life and pass off the slough.) If you want to create something big you need to hire people to help you.

So why doesn't everyone have a personal assistant that they hired from the local university? Heck, a fourteen year old could do half the tasks on most lists. (In fact, the first university student I hired used to sub-contract my tasks to his fraternity brothers, which I accepted as evidence of how little training it took to do my tasks.)

Some people overestimate the difficulty of tasks and underestimate the frustration impact. They say, “Training the person would take longer than doing it myself.” HEL-LO!?!?! Did anyone train you to call the insurance company to complain about a bill? No. It's trial and error. So your assistant can learn himself. Even five calls would only cost you less than $10. But if you did the five calls to the insurance company yourself you'd be angry and frustrated for the next two hours.

Some people overestimate the importance of a task. They say, “The person would never do it how I want.” But so what? You're not giving the core of your life to the assistant. You're not saying, for example, “Can you climb Mt. McKinely for me?” You're asking for something like food shopping. So let's say the assistant buys the wrong bread and forgets pasta. Is having the right food in the house integral to your life goals? The answer is probably No. You can eat pancakes instead of pasta. It's a small price to pay to have enough time to meet your life goals.

A time optimist does not use an assistant because she says, “It'll take me more time to ask the assistant to do the task than to do the task myself.” This person misunderstands time. Buying movie tickets, for example takes ten minutes on the phone, but it takes only one minute to ask an assistant to do it. If you make the choice to spend the 10 minutes doing it yourself seven times a day, you've wasted an hour of your time.

If you are currently employed don't tell me you don't have enough money. Think of yourself as a small business, and follow the basic rules of running a business: You have to reinvest profits (your salary) back into the business (your career) if you want to see growth (your promotion). No matter how much you earn, as long as you can cover basic life necessities (food, clothes, housing — not sailing lessons) a portion of your profits should go back into your business.

Learning to use an assistant effectively is not easy — it takes practice. But using an assistant now, for your personal tasks, your will train yourself to effectively leverage the personal assistant you get from your employer when you get promotion after promotion from being so intently focused on your goals.

My cousin had a karaoke party. I had to go because he’s my cousin, but I refused to sing because this would have pained the audience even more than it would have pained me. A woman at the party, however, impressed me by engaging the crowd even though she had no apparent singing talent. It turned out that this woman, Lindy, is a Sanford Meisner-trained actress who works for a consulting firm, teaching executives how to strengthen business relationships by using acting techniques. The course costs $275 an hour. I signed up.

At our first session, Lindy explained the premise: Acting and leading are both about establishing a relationship with an audience and making them believe in you. My first assignment was to memorize a short speech — “Ain’t I a Woman,” by Sojourner Truth. I loved the speech, but I hated having to memorize it, and I dreaded having to recite it in front of Lindy. Then I remembered what Lindy’s boss said at the beginning of the course: This program is best suited to high-level executives with enough self-confidence to explore leadership techniques that might feel silly at first. I wanted to fit into this self-confident high-level executive category, so I forced myself to show up for the second meeting.

I bombed. I couldn’t remember the speech. Lindy told me to think less about the speech and more about connecting with her, my audience. Finally, when I looked at her the way I look at my husband when I need him to pick up the dry cleaning, she was satisfied.

I may have gotten the look down, but my delivery was still off. Lindy instructed me to reengage her whenever I sensed I was losing her. So I started over. She stopped me immediately. “You can’t just start over,” she said. “Leaders stick with their audience and fight to get them back.” “How do I do that?” I asked. “Take a risk,” she said. In acting, one might ad-lib; in business, one can ask a rhetorical question. So I did, and then started talking right away. She pointed out that a good leader is comfortable with a long pause, which shows trust that the audience is thinking. Speaking too fast doesn’t allow the audience to absorb or interpret, killing any chance of making a connection.

My biggest problem, according to Lindy, was wanting to appear like a cool and hip leader and not paying attention to my audience. I made it about me instead of about them. “Pretend you’re an evangelist preacher,” she said, because preachers excel at engaging listeners. I continued to give my speech, adding after every few sentences, “Can I get an ‘Amen’?” I felt more and more pathetic as Lindy sat in stony silence, ignoring my bleating pleas. Then I realized that if I didn’t care about what I was saying, no one else would. You really have to want an “Amen” to get one, and finally I did.

After this breakthrough, the sessions became easier. The principles of theater and management are the same: A director and a manager both have to lead in ways that allow for and encourage a person’s best, most creative self. Managing is about performing, which takes practice, energy, and concentration. The basics are these: Believe your material. Know your audience. Engage them, so they are invested in what you have to say. And for those of you who are not yet managers, acting like a manager is the first step toward becoming one.

Last week I met my boss face-to-face for the first time. I've been working with him for more than two years — via phone and e-mail. I had never seen him, but I had a general idea of what he looked like because over time he had tossed me clues about his appearance. At least I thought he had.

I spend a lot of time writing about appearance and its impact on career success. I've been known to say things like: People judge you in the first three seconds they see you; good-looking people make more money than unattractive people; going to the gym regularly improves your chances of success. Invariably, in response to such columns, my boss will send me a self-deprecating e-mail. He's a funny guy, and to his credit, his e-mails about his looks are usually funny. For example, in reference to the column about good-looking people getting raises, he wrote: “Now I understand why I am making peanuts.”

Or something like that. It is not a direct quote because I didn't save his emails. In fact, based on the messages he sent to me, I thought I would be getting a new boss shortly because he implied he was so incredibly obese that he might die of a heart attack any day. My mental image of him grew more extreme with the arrival of each successive e-mail.

By the time I met my boss at the airport last week, I had begun to envision him as so enormous that he needed a special chair. So you can imagine my surprise when I found myself greeting someone who is physically fit and (it turns out) plays tennis regularly. Clearly, he's not obese, he's just funny. He was sending humorous e-mails that I was misreading. This is what happens in e-mail relationships: People create pictures based on their best guesses. (Or their most desperate guesses. If I was thinking of dating my editor, perhaps I would have imagined him as really good looking.)

The lesson here? Be careful what you write about yourself to someone who never sees you. This goes beyond discussing your looks. For example, suppose you're an over-achiever, but you make jokes about slacking off. Your recipient doesn't know that you work your tail off and you're only being self-deprecating. There's a fine line between being self-deprecating and being revealing, and it isn't visible in e-mail.

As soon as I realized that I had been misreading my editor's e-mails, I started discovering other e-mail nuance problems.

My brother, an investment banker, is working on a large client's overseas business deal that's been widely publicized in the business press. He received a message with the subject line, URGENT!!, from a staff administrator. So he opened it nervously, thinking the deal had collapsed. It turned out that the administrator needed to know how much of his American Express bill would be charged to this particular client.

Now this company is so large it could pay every AMEX customer's bill for several months without severely impacting its bottom line. Obviously, the client wasn't worried about my brother's charges. And my brother wasn't in trouble. But by using the URGENT!! subject line, the administrator inadvertently tipped every one off that she was in trouble for not getting this information sooner. A more astute way for her to address her problem would have been to say in her e-mail, “Please get back to me with this information by the end of the day today.”

Inappropriate e-mail addresses comprise another harmful nuance category. The address billandmary@aol.com is ridiculous in business. Only use a joint address for business correspondence if you and your spouse/partner are applying for a job you'll do together. College career advisor Julia Overton-Healy of Mansfield, Pa., [what college, why mention her out of the blue?] has seen it all: keggerboy and even youwantapieceofme. Surely if you are reading this column you are beyond keggerboy. But analyze your e-mail address critically, paying heed to both sides of the @: bill@keggerboy.com is not an improvement over keggerboy@aol.com. .

E-mail nuances can betray you in the halls of corporate America as easily as verbal nuances. They can turn otherwise well crafted communications into undermining menaces. Even worse, your seemingly clever e-mails may become a company joke and end up serving as fodder for columns like mine.

During my advertising agency days when I worked with Asian car companies, I had countless business meals with Asian men who had been schooled by experts in the art of American dining. Their training was evident; when faced with four forks at the first course of our meal, my companions were astute enough to know to take the second fork from the outside. (The rule, for dining idiots, is, when in doubt, use the utensil farthest from the plate, which in this case was the appetizer fork.) With every meal thereafter, I learned a little more about dining from them, and they learned a little more about server-side technology from me, until none of us needed each other anymore and a final “Check, please” was uttered.

Since then, I’ve gathered tips for business meals. I’m not perfect — in fact, I still don’t know why people use chopsticks for sushi when it seems like finger food — but I have learned a few things that can help keep meals moving smoothly. And I received a few e-mails last week suggesting that I write a column about table manners during business meals, so here goes.

Don’t dive for your food. I think the rule about not being the first to eat comes from the idea that you shouldn’t dis the Queen by eating the good stuff before her. Or something like that. Then, I think, this rule came to mean, Don’t look like you’re starving as if we were living in Depression-era times. Now, I think, it’s more about being interested in the people at — instead of the food that’s on — your table.

Don’t order soup. It splashes. It’s hard not to slurp. If your soup is hot and everyone else has a cold appetizer, they will have to wait while your soup cools. And in case your mom never told you this — when you tip the bowl to get the dregs of the soup, tip away from yourself, not toward. Also, spoon away from yourself, not toward, unless you want to drip-dry later.

Don’t sit facing a mirror. You will not be able to stop looking at yourself, which people might mistake for vanity or disinterest in the people around you. Both may be true, which would make things even worse. Don’t sit facing the sun. You will squint, which is never attractive. You will see your dining partner as a silhouette and you will miss facial expressions, which are crucial to reading moods.

Don’t cross your legs under the table. Sitting this way tilts your body a little bit. The tilt looks fine to those who can see your sheer stockings with a seam running up the back, but when your companions see no legs, just body, the tilt makes you look like you have either bad posture or no equilibrium.

In groups of more than five people, there is likely to be more than one conversation at a time. Sit near the person you want to talk to, but not next to her — it’s so much easier to talk across the table. That said, you must say a few words to those on either side of you. No matter how large the party, it is rude to talk only to the person on one side of you.

Drink. I’m not saying go wild, but if everyone else is drinking, unless you’re in a 12-step program, give in to peer pressure. It’s like wearing a suit when everyone else wears a suit. This goes for dessert also. I’m not saying you should initiate ordering the banana split flambe, because part of being a good executive is not being out of control, which means not being fat, which means not eating desserts. But if everyone else is getting one, don’t ruin the fun. How hard is it to take a bite in a show of camaraderie?

When in doubt, take your cue from those around you. For example, you probably don’t know how to use a finger bowl. I, in fact, do. But when my grandma trotted them out for my sweet-16 birthday party, my friends ate the floating carrot-fish out of the bowl. Are others ordering an appetizer? In what price range are their entrees? By the way, fingertips are dipped daintily into the finger bowl then patted dry with the napkin.

These tips may not land an account or close a deal, but I’ve found they are extras I bring to the table.

My column was late. Not to you, but to my editor. It is surprising, really, that my column was late, because the time zone difference is in my favor. But this week I would have needed my editor to be in another galaxy.

I will not tell you why I was late because the only thing worse than being late telling why you were late. I am not talking about being late because your family's house burned down. I am talking about being late because of slow traffic, a late babysitter, a presentation that ran too long. Upward mobility requires that people can depend on you to be on time.

If you are a person who is always late, you will get in trouble. People who are always late think they are only sometimes late, so if you think you are sometimes late, you are probably in trouble.

There is no need to give advice on how to be on time, because everyone knows how to be on time. (Here's the proof: If the President of the United States invited you to dinner would there be any risk that you'd be late? No.) But perhaps there is a need to show why *all* deadlines and appointments are as important as dinner with the President.

The basic problem with being late is that you reveal too much about yourself. In the end, being late reveals either disrespect or incompetence, both of which are important things to not have at work, and if you do have them, hide them by being on time, always.

If you are late to a meeting, for example, you are disrespectful to everyone in the room. If your boss is there, forget the promotion. If your direct reports are there, imagine ten years from now when everyone has new jobs at new companies, and your bonus depends on cutting a deal with someone who used to report to you, and that person remembers how disrespectful you were. No bonus.

Sometimes people are on time to the meeting but they don't have the report. Forget the excuses because everyone in the room will see you as incapable. There are shades of incapable. There is incapable of doing the report so you procrastinate. There is perceiving that you are incapable even though you are capable which makes you incapable with low self-esteem. There is overloaded and did not get to the report which really means you cannot set limits at work, which translates to low self-esteem, or worse yet, no knowledge of your own limits.

How can you fix the problem? Being honest with yourself goes a long way in the late arena. Once I was late to dinner and someone at the table said to me, “You must be a time optimist.” I had no idea what he was talking about. But then he explained that most people are late because they are too optimistic about how quickly they can do things — which is a nice way of saying that people are late because they are not honest with themselves about how long things really take. So if you really want to be on time, you will start being a better judge of how much time tasks really take — and you will add some time to each estimate.

I used to teach a college-level business class, and some days I would give a pop quiz during the first five minutes of class. The quiz would be easy but it would count for a significant percentage of a student's overall grade. Some students would approach me after class to tell me that they had an excuse for lateness and that my surly pop quizzes were ruining their chance of getting into law school. I told the students that the quiz was my way of emphasizing that it doesn't matter how much you know about business, if you're late, you will undermine your success.

Luckily, my editor does not quiz me, and luckily, I am not applying to law school.

When the Oscars run (probably overtime) on Sunday, I'll be rooting for “Lost in Translation” for best picture. Not that I have seen the other competitors, but I loved this particular movie. In fact, I was so impressed that I read up on Sofia Coppola. In the process, I learned more about career management by how she managed hers.

Of course, Sofia has had more advantages than most fledgling directors. Her dad, Francis Ford Coppola, provided her with a stunning apprenticeship, including giving her a part in “The Godfather: Part III,” screenwriter lessons and producing “Lost in Translation” for her.

But before I launch into a celebration of Sofia Coppola, I need to say that the U.S. is not a meritocracy: Rich people are better connected, so they get better jobs. And rich people who are not well connected tend to get better jobs because they have an easier time envisioning themselves in a successful career than poorer people. An example: My younger brother, now 21, did almost no homework in high school, and he recently landed a job most college graduates would covet — investment banking in Europe.

He used connections and a lofty vision of himself to get it. He started on his career path in high school by getting a management job at a Blockbuster store? This was easy in the wealthy community where we were raised because no adults there wanted (or needed) this type of job. That left the entry-level management jobs to high school students. At my local Blockbuster store in sort-of-rough-and-tumble Brooklyn, the managers are in their thirties. So the first moment of inequality is that rich kids can get great jobs in high school.

Since he had been an actual manager before, I was able to give him a management job in my own company during the summer after his freshman year of college. And I concede he did an outstanding job. But only a sister would give a 18-year-old a management job in a software company.

The next year, my cousin, a high ranking guy at a big ad agency, gave my brother a summer internship even though my brother missed the deadline for applying and wasn’t in business school like all the other interns. And to be honest, my brother did a great job of mending fences with a basically estranged cousin. He also had a stellar resume written by yours truly.

So by the time my brother graduated from college, he had a great experience on his resume that helped him land his new job in Europe. I don’t begrudge him that. And I admit that with a lot of effort and even more luck, a poor kid could land the same positions as my brother. But it’s clear he had a million advantages that poor kids don't have, so he didn’t need as much luck.

Speaking of people who don't need luck, let's get back to Sofia. Tracing the career of a person who had every advantage in the book can make one a little peevish. So how do people act when they have every advantage? That’s the relevant question, because probably we should all act the same way.

People like my brother, who have relatively few advantages compared to someone like Sofia, ask for everything — just to see if they'll get it. He asked my parents to pay for him to attend an expensive college even though he didn’t do a lick of homework in high school. Even though he knew he wasn’t qualified, he asked my cousin for an internship. He could do this because he could envision himself getting it. Poor kids have to stretch to imagine having food on the table every night.

In Sofia’s world, though, you don't just ask for something — you operate as though you’ll definitely get it. The difference is that my brother and others like him still need to make contingency plans, whereas really well connected people don't. Thinking this way is what helps them to succeed.

So Sofia Coppola wrote “Lost in Translation” for Bill Murray before he said he'd make a movie with her. Once she finished the script it took her months to finally get it to him. Then she left messages on his 800-number for five months before he responded to the script.

We should all believe in ourselves so much. How many of us would spend months on a project that might not happen? It's her belief in herself that impresses me. It doesn't matter if your last name is Coppola; if your screenplay is terrible, Bill Murray won’t do it. In that sense, Sofia did, in fact, take a gamble, even though she wasn’t in danger of starving like some screenwriters are. And with the biggest risks come the biggest rewards.

Maybe rich people can afford to take more risks. But my point is that by believing in yourself, as Sofia Coppola did, you may be able to leap career hurdles you once thought were impossible. How can you not root for her on Sunday?

The goals you have for your life are only as good as your daily to-do list. You can make all the grand plans you want, but if you don’t stay on track each day, you won’t reach those goals. To-do lists are for people who believe in their dreams and their ability to reach them. List makers create daily plans for success. In other words, everyone should have a daily to-do list.

If you aren’t careful, however, your list will become more of a procrastination aid than dream machine. Here are seven typical ways you can undermine your list:

1. Ignore it. This is my pet thing to do. If I can’t handle my life that day, I don’t look at my list. This allows me to think I don’t need to do anything. But then the rest of the week is hell because I’m compensating for stuff I ruined by ignoring it. It would have been easier to review my list, accomplish the most pressing items, and then go back to bed.

2. List vague tasks. Take, for example, “work on presentation”. When is this job finished? How many things need working on? Why would you start this chore if you have no plan for completing it? This item is like poison ivy — you see it and go another direction. Break down the items on your list into manageable parts. Besides crossing items off the list is fun, and the more to cross off the better.. I’ve been known to write “buy envelopes” as one of the tasks needed to send resumes. It’s an easy step in a hard process — makes me feel like I’m getting something done in my big-picture goal of landing a job.

3. Create a wish list. A wish list is not a to-do list. It’s important to have life goals and it’s nice to be lofty, but no point in putting “buy a house” on your to-do list. If you really can buy a house, try listing an easier item like, “call mortgage broker” If you can’t get that far, make a list of things you’d like to have in 10 years. Include “buy a house” and post this list on your fridge. Then get back to your to-do list — every 10-year plan is the culmination of 3,650 daily to do lists.

4. Switching manically between types of tasks. E-mail, phone, errand, e-mail, phone, errand. This is not a productive day. A good day is e-mail,e-mail, e-mail, phone, phone, phone, errand, errand, errand. So organize your to-do list so that you do all your e-mails in one or two sittings.

5. List items you’d like to do but shouldn’t. These are fun things like learn 1000 words in Italian or knit an extra-large sweater. Most working professionals do not have time for these in a typical day. Unproductive adults indulge themselves in doing them anyway because it makes them feel productive. I know I do not have time to make cupcakes for my husband’s birthday and I should buy him a cake from the local bakery. But I put “making cupcakes” on my to-do list anyway, and then, when he comes home, I’m annoyed because making his cupcakes ruined my workday.

6. Lose sight of the big picture. How many people are unemployed but don’t have “get a job” on their list? If you’re among them, good for you — because “get a job” is too vague. But you should include job-search-related tasks, such as “Send out six resumes” or “make two networking calls”. So many people omit chores related to their most important goal because they seem obvious. But if you don’t put them on the list, they won’t happen.

7. Write a novel. A list is not a novel. It is one page.

In honor of Valentine’s Day, this is a love letter to my husband. But apparently, he is too busy to read my column, so he won’t see the letter.

The last time I complained about his disinterest, he said, “Okay, fine, read me your columns.”

So I read a column out loud to him. And in the middle of it, he fall asleep.

To test him, I said, “So, what do you think?”

He jerked his head up, like a college kid in an 8 am class, and he said, “Uh. It got slow after the first couple of paragraphs.”

Fortunately, my affection for my husband isn't based on his listening skills. I love him for other reasons, including his fearlessness when it comes to changing careers. He isn't afraid to reinvent himself professionally so that he always does something he finds interesting. His excitement about his work makes our life together more fun.

My husband's first job was as a composer. When he was ten. For most kids this wouldn't be a job, but his parents couldn't afford a private school in Los Angeles, so my husband got a scholarship to a top-tier school for his musical talents.

In college, he decided that to be a great composer you need to have something very new to say, and he did not have something that new to say about music. So he quit music.

He went to film school and earned spending money by editing soft-core porn: “The Magic Blanket Bikini.” (He says it was very, very, soft because the star announced midway through filming that she wouldn't take her clothes off.) He made video art for his master's thesis, and his work became so well known that it is part of the curricula at UCLA's film school.

But he grew tired of the film industry after one too many Magic Blankets. So when he graduated, he took a job designing video games. He learned to say Ka-pow! and Ouch! in four languages, and he got to wheel and deal with big budgets from major gaming companies.

I married a game designer with a penchant for piano and a portfolio of films that featured ex-girlfriends being constrained. (“The director,” he explained, “always dates the actress.”)

On September 11, my husband found himself looking over me, dust-covered and shaken in a hospital bed. Suddenly, he wanted to save the world. He became an unpaid volunteer for nonprofits until one hired him. Now he helps prisoners establish safe, fulfilling lives when their sentence is up. His job would stretch my patience (admittedly, thin) to its limits.

My husband drives his parents nuts: “We drove to all those music lessons and then you go to film school! We paid for five years of film school and you make video games!” He drives my parents nuts, too: “What is his job? Video is not a job! Volunteering is not a job!” But my husband’s approach to work makes me excited; Members of my family picked a career and stuck with it forever, even when they stopped being fun.

Our careers are not who we are. But what we choose to do with our days reflects our values. I picked a partner who tolerate being bored or uninspired, and his standards for life encourage me to raise my own. His career choices also reveal a bigger heart than I saw when I married him — except when it comes to reading my columns.

I am four months pregnant. But the baby is dead, inside me, and must be removed. I am devastated. I always knew this could happen, in the back of my mind. But you are never prepared for something like this to happen.

When I first heard the news, I did nothing. Cancelled every plan I had. Sat in chairs staring at walls, laid in bed hoping for sleep, and cried. And then came the day of the week when I had to either write my column or skip a week. Skipping a week, I thought, would probably be okay. But then I thought. Well, I'm not doing anything. I *could * write a column.

In the face of tragedy work is a weird thing. On the one hand, it becomes unimportant. I think back to the day before the day I knew. My sister-in-law called me and said, “How are you feeling?” I said, “Really rushed. I have two deadlines, and I don't have time to talk.” She said, “No, about the baby.” That day, work was so important.

On the day I found out the baby was dead I had scheduled three interviews. It was a tight schedule but I felt the interviews absolutely had to get done that day. But at the doctor’s office, when I was crying so loudly that I was taken to a room farthest away from the waiting area so as not to scare already jittery expectant mothers, I didn't care if the interviews got done. I know it is a cliche that a job isn’t life or death, but you see that truth very clearly when there is death.

Co-workers who, in the face of death, treat work as more important than death seem crazy. I know because of a boss whose mom died three hours before what was, admittedly, the most important speech of his career. He felt obliged to tell his direct reports the news so they would know why he was crying in his office. Word spread fast. Condolences poured in from co-workers throughout the company. Then he gave the speech. And no one could listen. We all thought, “Why doesn’t he go home? Why isn’t he upset? Why is he standing in front of us now?”

Co-workers who treat less serious events as if they were a death, seem equally crazy. They appear melodramatic and unreliable. For example, when a colleague’s boyfriend of one year walked out on her, she missed a week of work. That’s too much. I’m not sure where the line is for what’s too much, but a week is too much for that.

So where is the line for a dead baby that I never saw, but has been a part of me and is still inside? For two days I did nothing. But today I feel like work might be the best thing for me. For most of us, work isn’t just about getting a paycheck; it’s a way to connect with the world. I don’t want to be alone today, so I’m working.

And although I postponed my interviews, I won’t miss any deadlines. Not because I think the baby’s death is unimportant. In fact, in light of this event, I am sure people would be very sympathetic about my missing deadlines. But I won’t miss any because in the midst of personal tragedy, work is a way for me to maintain structure in my life and find not-so-tragic things to think about.

Let’s abolish the word busy. When you ask someone, “How have you been?” and they say, “Busy,” it doesn’t mean anything. I’m sick of it. We all have the same 24 hours to fill. Everyone’s are filled with something.

The difference is that the “busy” people feel frenetic during those hours. Those of you who walk around telling everyone how busy you are, get a grip. Make some tough choices and calm down. There’s a big difference between a busy day and a full day. The former is so frantic that you aren’t effective.

Don’t tell me you can’t help it. You can. Here are the steps to take:

1. Recognize that a frenetic life is a life half lived. You should aim for “Flow,” a concept from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a unique state of mind where productivity and creativity are at their highest. Csikszentmihalyi shows, in his wide-ranging study, that Flow generates the grand ideas, phenomenal work, and intense, rewarding experiences that people identify with happiness.

Flow occurs when you are fully present and engaged in what you are doing; the concept of time melts away in a commitment to the goal-oriented activity. This feeling requires being occupied and engaged for uninterrupted chunks of your day without ever once thinking that you’re rushed for time. People who are busy do not get this feeling.

2. Recognize that you are addicted to busy. You like what busy does for you.
Busy gives you an excuse for poor performance. Busy gives you a way to ignore parts of your life that are falling apart and need attention. And when what you do makes you feel inadequate — for example, if you’re a volunteer, taking care of a parent, meditating or doing other things that are not valued by society — busy gives you something to say that society does value.

Many people mistakenly feel that busy means important. But busy really means out of control. A full day means planned and prioritized. A busy day means frenetic and unorganized. Full is fine. It is expected. But important people have full days, not busy days, because important people can’t afford to be out of control.

3. Prioritize. This does not mean making a to-do list. Nor does it mean making a list of career goals. You need to list what you want in life. It should be a short list, because life is short. Don’t make a list of dreams; you need to give up your dreams. Not all, but most.

This is because being an adult means making choices. It means admitting that we cannot do everything and choosing to devote the time we have to what’s most important. By not making choices, you aren’t facing the realities of adulthood. By scheduling your days with more things than you can accomplish, you are not taking control of your life. You’re letting chance take control. Chance will dictate what gets done because you refuse to prioritize.

4. Say no. Whenever someone asks you to do something, be ready to say no. Your priorities at work, home, and during your personal and networking time should be clear.

Do not worry that you’ll hurt someone’s feelings by saying no. To do something well, you must be focused. That takes self-discipline. But when you say yes to please someone, it shows you lack the self discipline to be truly focused. Saying no is a gift to the people and projects that are the priorities in your life.

You do not automatically have to say yes to everything you’re asked to do at work either. Your boss establishes your priorities. If she then gives you work that would compromise those priorities, you can refuse (with an explanation). Sticking to the plan will makes you look smart and committed.

5. Change how you talk. Don’t ever say again that you’re busy. If this is your current response, realize you can’t bear to give up your dreams and being busy veils your fear of underperformance. You need to say something more honest than busy.

When you have done the first four steps, you will no longer be busy. You will have room to be focused and enthralled. Then, when someone says, “How have you been?” you will have something more interesting and engaging to say than “Busy.”