So many people I have spoken to recently tell me they are always ‘just so busy’. Yet, outwardly, many of their behaviours continue to contribute to the busy-ness. My concern is that busy has become the ‘cloak of credibility’, fuelling a dangerous mindset:
I hate working like this – but I have to … that’s how things are
The Yerkes-Dodson ‘inverted-U’ model was originally published over 100 years ago, proposing that optimal performance does require some level of arousal. Think about it for a moment; your best achievements have commonly occurred when you were under some degree of pressure. Later, research by Hebb added that the more complex the task, the easier it is for the output to suffer when there is too much arousal: an increasingly relevant point. Who do you know that has a job that is getting simpler???
The explanation lies in the difference between arousal and stress
While the level of arousal matches the desired level, you have 'eustress' – healthy and motivating, signified by feelings of optimism, control and competence. The peak experience of this is better known as FLOW, as presented in the book by the same name (Csikszentmihalyi, 2002). Once the level of arousal exceeds the desired level though, you create distress. This is more typically associated with feelings of anxiousness, pessimism and lack of control; which have real implications for performance and well-being.
More bad news about busy:
It is an unfortunate reality that you just can’t multi-task – not on complex tasks, anyway. At best, you are good at attention switching but that has high costs. Every time you switch, your brain spends time and resources to ‘ramp up’ its attention on the new item. Some studies estimate that it takes over 15 seconds to fully return to your prior level of thinking following a distraction.
How many times do you switch attention? Do the math's …
The energy expended in ramping up is largely wasted effort, in output terms. The second cost results from the actual quality of thinking you are able to perform. If you believe that there are numerous, competing priorities or are expecting random distractions (like email, tweets or phone calls) you will be more likely to feel under pressure and default to reflex or habit for faster solutions. Check out Daniel Kahneman’s book: Thinking Fast and Slow, to better understand this.
In a previous article I discussed how these strengths are fine for simple or routine tasks but that they do not support the more valuable creative or innovative thinking often required. In fact, there are now studies emerging that show reliance upon your known strengths can drive you into what Stanford Professor Carol Dweck calls a 'fixed mindset'. Her 2006 book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success relies upon decades of research to demonstrate the stark differences between fixed and growth mindsets.
Of course, various circumstances will create situations where you will have to be busy. These occasions need to be recognised, managed, executed, celebrated and followed by appropriate recovery. In an ideal world, there would also be some review to understand how to avoid getting into the same position again. It can’t be ignored and it can’t become the norm. I will expand upon these in subsequent posts, as they are all important contributors to workplace culture, engagement and well-being.
I help businesses to see that ‘busy’ is not a ‘badge of honour’ … it is a ball and chain.
In Part 2, I will present the most useful tips I have seen to help busy people.