Busyness… it’s an all too common phenomenon to feel overwhelmed by an ever-expanding to-do list, unopened emails and demands of other people on your time. A familiar sense is that we could be twice as effective if only we had more time. The paradox is clear: despite being busy, we feel unproductive and keep going.

The question is why?

Why, given the toll on our well-being and performance, do we persist in a cycle of perpetual busyness?

The answers lie in understanding our primal instincts as human beings and our early childhood conditioning.

The need for approval

At the core of our very being lies the primal urge for survival and belonging which shapes how we navigate both work and life. Rejection, in an evolutionary sense, had grim consequences, imprinting a fear deep within our psyche, that subtly influences our behaviour. This fear often leads to us unconsciously seeking the approval and acceptance of those around us, weaving its thread into the fabric of our daily interactions.

In today’s workplace, this innate drive can pose challenges in creating boundaries and uttering the odd necessary “no” to our colleagues, managers and even ourselves. Our pursuit of approval becomes intertwined with our professional identity. It can reach a point where, the validation we receive from our superiors, becomes integral to our job security. For many of us, the familiar path feels safer and easier, meaning we perpetuate our cycle of busyness.

Childhood conditioning

Another aspect of psychology to consider is our childhood conditioning. If, like me, your early experiences were shaped by being rewarded for your achievements, you might hold a belief system that associates your self-worth with busyness and productivity. In Western societies, we reward children for excelling, be it academics, music, sport or something else. This need to achieve starts early when as parents we compare milestones such as babies walking or talking earlier than their peers. When we receive validation as children, primarily for our accomplishments, we internalise the idea that our value is dependent upon constant activity and achievement.

This early conditioning leads us to believe that being busy and productive is not only a source of external approval but also a fundamental aspect of who we are. As a result, it shapes our mindset and contributes to the perpetual cycle of busyness we see in our society today.

Drawing from my own personal experience, I once held the belief that slowing down was a sign of weakness. In hindsight, this perspective proved detrimental to both my well-being and my performance as a leader. It’s a belief that I’m learning to overcome.

Barriers to balance

Whilst we might occasionally recognise the need to slow down or push back on our ever-increasing workload, our subconscious mind becomes a formidable barrier to creating balance. Our subconscious not only takes care of bodily functions like our breathing and heartbeat, but it also stores our deeply held beliefs about who we think we are. Whilst these were primarily formed in early childhood, they continue to influence our choices and behaviours as adults.

To give you an example, people who grapple with setting and maintaining boundaries in their work and lives often identify as people pleasers. From my experience coaching many of these individuals – a recurring theme emerges – they all encountered early situations where their validation was tied to prioritising other’s needs, whether those of their parents or siblings. In adulthood, the struggle to say no and the perpetual pursuit of approval persists. The subconscious mind replays these deeply ingrained patterns until we attain sufficient self-awareness to override them.

Breaking free

I believe the struggle to break free from our busyness is a complex interplay between our evolutionary programming and deeply rooted subconscious beliefs. Despite recognising the need to delegate, prioritise, and create time for reflection, the inability to find balance persists. It’s not merely a lack of willpower; it’s a battle against the subconscious narratives that govern our actions.

In the professional sense, the busyness predicament is exacerbated by external pressures. Constant demands for improved performance contribute to the unsustainable pace of work.

The consequence, we’re out of balance and many individuals feel they’re on the brink of exhaustion juggling multiple responsibilities in a bid to meet dysfunctional norms.

The environments that solely focus on performance and productivity cause us to work in a state of stress and overwhelm. This leads us to miss opportunities to innovate and find new solutions to our workplace challenges.

Missed opportunities

I’d like to share a fable with you to bring this to life…

A group of people find themselves in a challenging predicament – they’re attempting to pull a heavy cart loaded with stones up a steep hill. The task is difficult, but what makes the situation even more challenging is the choice of wheels fixed to their cart… they’re square.

As they grapple with their journey, a stranger stumbles upon the struggling group and offers a ground-breaking innovation: round wheels.

However, much to the surprise of the well-intentioned stranger, the response from the stressed team is a collective rejection. “No thanks!” they shout. “Can’t you see we’re busy pulling this cart of stones!”

This scenario bears a striking resemblance to the challenges faced by numerous individuals and teams in the workplace. It’s also a pattern I’ve observed in virtually every team I’ve ever worked with.

The metaphor of square wheels represents the tendency to become fixated when consumed by busyness. It signifies the resistance to change that exists in the deeply ingrained mindset that busyness equates to productivity. The round wheels symbolise efficiency, adaptability and a willingness to embrace change. The paradox lies in the fact that, despite facing a difficult journey with square wheels, the team opts to persist in their struggle rather than take a moment to consider a more effective approach.

This cultural phenomenon hinders progress and creativity. It creates an environment where the pursuit of busyness overshadows the pursuit of working in a more balanced and effective way. Breaking free requires us to embark on a conscious and sometimes uncomfortable journey. It demands self-reflection, a revaluation of deeply ingrained beliefs, and the courage to redefine and overcome unhealthy norms.

At Essentially Human, we champion this journey, recognising that true effectiveness lies not in constant activity but in mindful, purposeful action.

Conclusion

As we navigate the complexity of our work and wider lives, let’s pause to reflect on the square wheels we might be dragging uphill. The round wheels of innovation and a balanced approach await, offering a path to reclaiming our time, energy, and effectiveness.

It’s time to challenge the status quo, rewrite our subconscious narratives, and embark on a journey to reclaim our right to live and work with balance and purpose.

More from essentially human

Would supporting your leaders to be more effective in their work and find balance in their lives, help your organisation?

If so, we’re looking for 15 forward-thinking leaders who want to go from Too Busy and Overwhelmed to Balanced and Effective In 30 Days. Join us in January for our open programme to tackle the issue of busyness head-on. You can find out more here.

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