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Is Being Busy the New Quiet?

Remember those times when we had quiet spells? When the flow of work eased for a while and we could stop and take stock of things?

Yes, it’s been a while, certainly, but is the constantly busy feeling all that bad, or have we become hardened to it? It may be unrealistic to expect a return to the good old days, but do we deal with our current pressures as well as we should? And, can we look forward to being even busier in future? That is, if we’re fortunate enough still to be in work.

So, it’s probably time to establish a new equilibrium. One where we are still very busy, but certainly more productive and able to accomplish more, instead of feeling overwhelmed or even stressed all of the time.

For some of us, work is self-generated and we can regulate the pressures, or at least, balance them more evenly across our schedules. For those less fortunate, work flows from others – bosses, customers, staff, peers and assorted hangers-on. Establishing and maintaining control in those circumstances isn’t quite as easy, without the authority or persuasive style that could buy us some time.

If either one of the above is you (and that must include most of us), then how about adopting a new or revised attitude to work? As well as bad stress that creates the “fight or flight” response in us, there is a corresponding good stress, also known as “eustress” that gives us energy and motivation. Eustress is present in many high achievers, elite athletes and creative artists. If you’ve ever clinched a big deal, or had some other great result, then you’ll have enjoyed the benefits of eustress, such as clear thinking, focus and creative insight.

Much of our talk about stress however, focuses on the bad. This can take many and different forms – from global catastrophic issues, such as wars & terrorist attacks, to more immediate and intimate concerns like family and health. Sadly, there’s no shortage of stuff to worry about and it isn’t easy to separate the worry from work.

When we’re at work and we encounter something stressful, like a tight deadline, we can deal with it for a while before it becomes too negative. However, if we are exposed in this way for too long, it can make us physically and mentally ill. The good news here is that research shows if we let go completely of a problem by applying certain triggers, our brain re-arranges itself so that the left and right hemispheres communicate better. The brain is then better equipped to solve the problem.

This is known as the breakout principle where, by triggering a relaxation response ourselves at a point where we feel stressed, we can experience a sudden creative or energetic insight into the problem. This leads to a state of sustained improved performance called “the new normal” because the breakout principle effect can be remembered indefinitely.

So, how do we go about accessing this? Like all good consultancy ideas, this takes place in four steps:

First, struggle with a thorny problem – one that really taxes your thinking and experience. You need something that will take you up the stress curve quite a way and you will know when you get there, as you’ll stop feeling productive and start feeling stressed.

Second, you need to step away from the problem completely and do something different to invoke the relaxation response. This can be done in lots of enjoyable ways: meditating for ten minutes, jogging, walking the dog, looking at paintings or listening to some favourite music. The key is to stop analysing, surrender control, and detach yourself completely from the problem. When you do this, your body creates the chemical response to relax you and make you feel more productive.

Third, is about gaining the sudden insight, which is the actual breakout itself. This is also known as “flow” or being in the zone and is what happens to elite athletes when they train hard and let muscle memory take over. It also happens to creative artists when they experience a surge or burst of creativity or imagination. In all cases, a breakout is experienced as a feeling of well-being and relaxation that brings with it the unexpected insight or higher level of performance.

Fourth, is the return to the new normal state, where the feeling of self-confidence continues. Sleeping on the problem and waking refreshed and re-energised will equip us better to face the next day’s challenges. When we emerge from this calm period and expect things to go well, they often do. Practice and persistence helps to embed this as part of our work habit.

This form of re-framing or adopting a different perspective on a problem is often seen as helpful in a dispute between two people who are in conflict. When our mind and body are in conflict within ourselves, using a technique like this can also assist us in working out of such an inner deadlock to make a genuine breakthrough.

Whether we can or can’t control our work flows, we can control how we deal with them, whether they’re self-generated in the case of the independent worker, or they arrive in random, unpredictable sequences if we live in a more corporate world. The cost to our organisations and to our own physical and mental health means it must be worth a try. It is after all, a very pleasurable break from the routine of being busy all the time and not feeling as if we’re making progress.

Willie Maltman

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