When we’re busy and have that high-octane, panicked feeling that time is scarce …our attention and ability to focus narrows. Behavioral researchers call this phenomenon “tunneling.” And, like being in a tunnel, we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front of us. (Research has found we actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state.) We run around putting out fires all day, racing to meetings, plowing through emails, and getting to 5 or 6 PM with the sick realization that we haven’t even started our most important work of the day.Brigid Schulte’s brilliant summary of the impact of busyness from her article Preventing Busyness from Becoming Burnout, Harvard Business Review.
Not mentioned in Schulte’s article is how addicting this level of focus is. I suspect, for many, tunneling is the only form of meditation practice they have.
There’s also an adrenaline rush that comes from being busy. For those of us who work on projects, remember the rush of “crunch time?”
Add the fact that our culture rewards the perception of busyness and is it any wonder most of us are running around ineffective, frustrated, and burned out.
We can look at the trend of busyness through the lens of Ken Wilber’s “All Quadrants” framework:
- I – Your interpretation + what you get out of “being busy”
- We – The social “busyness” expectation
- It – Reacting to others’ behaviors (such as the late night/weekend email from your boss)
- Its – The systems that keep us “busy” – from weekly status meetings to instant messengers and notifications,
There are some system-level interventions we can use to slow down the treadmill – IM blockers, blocking slack time on our calendars, task visibility – but there is something deeper at work here.
What ARE you getting out of seeming “busy” all the time?
Is there a feeling of “belonging?”
Is it a convenient excuse?
Are you fearing loss of reputation?
If you are not “busy,” do you fear you won’t have value?
Or that you will be seen as “less than?” Or “not in demand?”
If you are not busy, will it force you to look at your life and face some hard truths that you really don’t want to see?
Does busyness allow you to avoid taking responsibility for your life and blame something else for your unhappiness?
Unless you are clear on what you get out of being busy, it’s going to be difficult to step off the hamster wheel.