Do you feel like you’re perpetually on the run, constantly going but never quite feeling like you’ve arrived?
I bet you’ve also caught yourself answering the question, “how are you?” by blurting out, “super busy.”
If this is the case, you’ve been running on a corporate hamster wheel, and burnout is around the corner. Equally disturbing, you’re missing the opportunity to be optimally productive. You read correctly. By always being on the go, you’re not maximizing your career potential.
This was a bitter pill to swallow for my client, Roberta, after she began working with me. Completely overwhelmed, she felt pulled in all directions. While working 65 hours a week, she was also raising two small children and trying to focus on making partner at a Big Four accounting firm. I told her the only way she was going to accomplish her goals was to slow down. As counterintuitive as it sounded, she needed to steer into her skid. I call it “slowing down to speed up.”
It’s the science that allowed Roberta to achieve her goals. The same formula could work for you.
Step 1: Acknowledge that accomplishing “everything” is an unrealistic goal.
As a knowledge worker, you’re paid to use your brain productively and creatively. This requires you to be fully present in your career, with your executive brain engaged. But by keeping yourself “super busy” (speeding along, squeezing in extra tasks, having lunch at your desk), you’re depriving yourself of the mental health breaks that yield your best work.
Anxiety mounts as time is short and work is never complete. Even using the word “busy” adds to your anxiety, which reverberates through your body. That jolt you feel is your brain’s amygdala reacting to the fear of not getting everything done, in the same way primitive humans reacted to the threat of a saber-toothed tiger. According to your modern brain, there’s no difference between the two scenarios, and your creativity is suppressed as a result.
The science behind slowing down, calming that primitive brain and letting the prefrontal cortex engage, is what Roberta needed to embrace in order to focus on one work project at a time. So how did she pull off this mental slowdown when there was “oh so much to do?” She took my advice to explore author and time management expert Laura Vanderkam’s truism: There isenough time to do what you deem as important. Roberta also embraced my college professor’s wise observation that “work expands to the time allotted,” which reminds us how non-essential tasks often steal our attention away from the job at hand.
When Roberta’s reflex was to say, “No, there’s not enough time,” her amygdala outbursted over the fear of not getting everything done. But when she readjusted her priorities by committing to what’s truly important in her career and personal life, her bleak premonition melted away.
Step 2: Clear your mind, and clear your schedule.
With her renewed outlook on personal time management in play, Roberta was prepared to employ some techniques to rein in her speedy, anxious brain. When she first awakens each morning, instead of reaching for her smartphone (which jumpstarts that amygdala), she now takes two minutes to connect with her breathing. Deadlines and to-do lists are off limits for her morning brain until she engages in a brief meditation. Before her feet even hit the floor, she reflects on three things she’s fortunate and grateful for, inspiring a rush of feel-good oxytocin. This is the moment she reflects on and starts to focus on her most important goals of the day ahead.
Roberta then creates some “white space” in her day. That means scheduling gaps of free time between appointments and phone calls. These 15-minute windows allow her to jot down notes and prepare to follow up after a meeting while details are fresh in her mind. It also allows for a quick preview of her next encounter, guaranteeing deliberate focus when the meeting commences.
After an episode of heavy-duty work, Roberta has committed to not losing herself in mental energy-depleting activities like email or Facebook. Instead, she spends five minutes taking a walk and connecting with her breathing. This clears her head and unleashes her creativity, which is what she’s being paid for. Those email and social media checks have their own time blocks built into her schedule.
Step 3: When you quit for the day, let your brain quit too.
After deciding on her most important task to accomplish tomorrow, Roberta commits to ending her workday by shutting down her cell phone and computer. Learning to embrace the quiet is her best inspiration to avoid the TV as merely comforting background noise. Instead, her brain can recharge in a “rural” setting she designs for herself, which, according to opinion columnist Pico Iyer, lets subjects “exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition. Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”
In Roberta’s progress, she recognizes when she is becoming caught in the “busy” trap, and actively breaks free of that frenzy. She practices self-compassion when she slips back into her old ways. And with her new level of productivity, she’s several steps closer to making partner.
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