Do less if you want to achieve more

By Louisa Walker

Increased workloads are a sure recipe for stress-related illnesses. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today
Increased workloads are a sure recipe for stress-related illnesses. Photo / Hawkes Bay Today

We face unprecedented change in the workplace as businesses respond to global recession.

Companies are downsizing and restructuring to survive.

Workforce numbers have been reduced, leaving those remaining on the job with ever-increasing workloads. Multi-tasking is the name of the game, and it is making us sick.

According to a recent Harris poll, one-third of workers aged 25 to 39 feel burned out.

Doctors are seeing record numbers of stress-related illnesses including anxiety, depression, insomnia, backache, and migraines. Research indicates that 70 to 90 per cent of patient visits to primary care are for health problems related to underlying emotional stress.

What do we do in response to this kind of pressure? Many attempt to "do more with less". The reality is that attempting to do more, faster, results in loss of job satisfaction, declining productivity and fatal stress. It is counter-intuitive.

Our initial response to the adrenaline rush we feel when threatened is to act and act fast! However, the answer to our dilemma and our discomfort is to slow down.

Culturally, taking one's time is viewed very negatively. The Puritan work ethic sees a relaxed pace as idleness, laziness, or sloth. The saying goes, "Idle hands are the Devil's workshop."

In reality, to actually accomplish more we have to slow down. Research shows that productivity increases with focused attention. By taking the time to savour the task at hand, we become more creative and the quality of our work improves.

ADDICTED TO BUSY-NESS

Dr. Edward Hallowell, in his book Crazy Busy: Overstretched, Overbooked and About to Snap! describes busy-ness as an addiction. He says being really busy can actually be fun. A challenge can give us an adrenaline rush. We feel needed and important. In fact, being really busy has been elevated to the level of a status symbol!

Hallowell describes us as kids in a sweetshop - so much is possible. Our technology and tools give us access to far more than we can ever engage with or accomplish. We are on information overload. Our addiction to being busy is born of enthusiasm.

We don't want to miss anything and have so much at our disposal - it is dizzying. However, this addiction to being busy can also be born of fear. Our insecurity, particularly in times of stress and change, creates an internal pressure to do-do-do. We are running scared - fast.

Hallowell provides the warning signs of an addiction to doing. Are you doing more but enjoying it less? A key sign that we are in dangerous overdrive is a sense of loss of pleasure in, particularly, the little things you used to enjoy: lunch with a friend, a game of tennis or time with family. If you find yourself frantically working to finish a project with a sense of do-or-die, be careful. Hurry and stress are lethal.

Being busy can shorten your life. Anxiety increases blood pressure, inflammation, and accidents while compromising the immune response. Stressful busy-ness is bad for your health.

BEWARE OF THE F-STATE

Overdoing it can result in what Hallowell describes as the f-state: frenzied, fearful, forgetful, and frantic.

This dangerous emotional state is a result of the effects of cortisol, the hormone that courses through your bloodstream under stress. High anxiety compromises brain function resulting in less focus and impaired attention resulting in errors and poorer judgment.

People labour under the assumption that they have to be busy to get things done, to keep up or to get ahead. Wrong. We must slow down to enjoy life, restore health and improve performance.

BREAKING THE ADDICTION

TIO or "turn it off". To return to a quieter, healthier pace, be brave and periodically turn off the cellphone, BlackBerry, laptop, and iPad and find silence and create space for your thoughts.

Learn to create boundaries, avoiding the trap of being like "tap water" for anyone or anything that demands your attention. Be selective. No more 24/7! Pick your limits - both personal and professional - and stick to them.

Prioritise your day and find time for what's most important in life: your enjoyment of it all. Schedule time with friends and family to ensure you keep your priorities straight. If it's in your schedule, you're more likely to do it.

Determine the three essential things you want to do in a day and use that as your lifeline to avoid getting sidetracked, distracted and devoured by the f-state!

PLAN FOR A BETTER LIFE

Withdraw from the adrenaline rush addiction, taking small steps to ease your recovery with the goal of engaging in life more fully, feeling more and enjoying it! Learn to quiet the mind and calm the central nervous system.

Hallowell describes three essential steps to de-stress: get enough sleep, get regular physical exercise, and get regular doses of meaningful human contact.

It has been said that we go to bed when we want to and get up when we have to. Sleep deprivation is also bad for your health and can impair immune function, increase accidents and injury and causes anxiety or depressed mood.

Slowing down improves sleep and getting enough sleep quiets the mind enough to relax, breathe deeply and enjoy the job at hand. Among the countless benefits of regular exercise are improved sleep, stress-relief and a calm mind.

And, most important, Hallowell refers to "the other Vitamin C - Vitamin Connect". Our minds and bodies thrive on regular positive human contact. We require a sense of belonging, caring and connection.

BE A ROLE MODEL

Learn to do less of what is extraneous, distracting and off-task. Settle into now, focusing fully on what is at hand. Avoid mental multi-tasking: thinking about the next event, a problem from earlier in the day, problems at home while at work or problems at work while at home, or thinking about your response while someone is talking to you.

Be a role model for others. Do one thing at a time, well, with care, attention and enjoyment. People will admire you for being smart enough to prioritise, staying on top of your game while producing quality work with pride and enjoyment.

Be brave enough to eliminate time spent with those people or things that waste your time or aren't good for you. Not only will you accomplish more while, paradoxically, appearing to do less, but you will certainly feel happier, healthier and will rediscover satisfaction in a job well done.

* Louisa is a clinical psychologist who has worked extensively on issues related to workplace dynamics, team building, communication and change management. She has taught university courses and provided training for organisations in public and private sectors.

She teaches at the Centre for Continuing Education including a one-day course called Building Resilience: Coping with Changes and Challenges in the Workplace.

* For more information, call Anne Cave at the Centre for Continuing Education 373 7599 ext 89541 or email a.cave@auckland.ac.nz.

- NZ Herald

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