The busi(y)ness blues or why being unstressed at work is not a party success!

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Imagine you open your eyes in the morning and there is the world you always dreamt of:

  • Nothing specific to get up for so you may either turn around and sleep some more or jump up and go for a jog in gorgeous weather
  • Sure you work today: a bit, from home, or a couple of hours with others, its highly effective and about 10 hours a week make all the money you need to live your glorious life
  • In any case the biggest worry is not whether you get to do your most beloved hobby but just whether it will be 4 or 5 times per week.

Sounds nice?

Add or change to it whatever it is that has lingered in your personal fantasy…. And then create the following scenario: you are at a great party and people compliment you on your tan and your vibrant energy. You tell them: oh it is this new life of mine, I play tennis four to five times a week, I work roughly 10 hours a week on this amazing project, and yesterday I spent an hour on seriously meditating which color socks give me a greater energy when running…. Seriously picture it! And you know what will happen: after you shared that three times with different people you will become Mr/Ms Unpopular! They will make you feel unwelcome, someone to be suspicious of. But you know they dream the same dream!

So why is it that we all share the dream of getting out of the rat race and actually live? And then we do not feel good when we do and do not give each other good vibes for it? If you are waiting to hear “horrible capitalism” or “bad society” you are wrong. It has to do with our brains!

There is a reward for being stressed. Surprise surprise, our brains “trick” us cleverly. Once we see that, we become more empowered to be responsible for how we play along with our own life.

From all over the world scientists agree on the same phenomenon: Most of us do way too many things at the same time, in an attempt to meet all the demands imposed on us in our personal and professional lives. In general, our day-to-day life experience feels scattered, fragmented and exhausting – like our lives pass by at a pace we can’t keep up with, without sufficient opportunities to catch some breath and recover.

Just consider for a moment: what if something is keeping us imprisoned and it is funnily enough NOT the life/work circumstances we are in? Allow just for a moment the perspective that we unknowingly and inadvertently keep ourselves ‘stuck in a rush.’ There are a number of elements to why this is the case, but one key element is: the pleasure of ‘busy-ness’.

Understanding the brain modes

Our brains are human organs and they function along biological rules. Yes we are conscious too. That is a fact. As is that the largest part of our brain is subconscious.
Consider that the biological development of our brain has not changed principally in the last 50 years. In fact, it was made and in large parts still functions as it did when we were in quite different life situations – actually a lot more than a few hundred years back. As a result our brains are still wired to react as if the world had not changed significantly.

The brain’s main task is to keep us safe and alive. It uses our senses to scan the environment for threat and to check that internally all is in order. It spends the largest amount of its energy capacity on that. Did you know we superficially wake up several times a night to check whether all is still the same as it was when we fell asleep?
Checking our security to stay alive is the top job of the brain, nothing more and nothing less. The part that is the most responsible for this is the oldest and most basic part of our brain, the R-System (Reptilian System).
When it fires all non vital organs shut down (including digestion), and tremendous energy is released into the body: ready to fight, flight, or freeze. And the Neo-Cortex, with which we do conscious thinking, shuts down as well. Interestingly enough, apparently an adult R-System fires up to 30-40 times a day!

Believe it or not, we actually biologically take pleasure from being busy. From the early ages, in order to survive, humans had to be busy - find shelter, keep warm, constantly look for food, protect ourselves from wild animals etc. So the human brain automatically encourages attitudes and behaviors that ensured survival with a ‘reward’ in the form of a pleasurable emotional surge – usually through the release of hormones.
And even better: any social group will feel the positive emotional surge if one of their members “brings home goodies”. So how about considering the possibility that reporting how busy you are makes you and others feel better?

So far so good, but what does that have to do with getting ourselves into an unhealthy hamster wheel? In concrete, our brains keep falling for numerous debilitating illusions in a world for which it was not really made.

In ancient times we needed to be motivated to gather as much as possible. So doing things with quick results is also rewarded with pleasurable emotion, which was evolutionarily very sensible. And we have a tendency to acknowledge others for that as well (working a lot is rewarded by attention! Try it out, works brilliantly). In addition, exchanging with others was one way of keeping us safe  - either in feeling safe in the group or in realistically exchanging important safety information.
So it is not so astonishing that we wear (perceived) busyness as a badge of success, share it, and can actually feel socially useless, guilty, wasteful and ashamed for doing nothing. Hand to heart: when did you last sit on the sofa for a whole day doing virtually “no-thing”?

Stunningly enough most of us dream about having nothing to do and then when there is nothing to do, we feel unwell. Remember those Sundays when you were little that were so painfully boring? No not the fault of your dear parents, just your brain in its heightened development phase. In fact, this is what makes meditation hard to learn: being with no-thing takes practice as the first reaction is usually alarm. So consider the possibly that our brain wiring can inadvertently keep us ‘stuck in a rush’.

According to Belgian neuro-psychiatrist Theo Compernolle[i], our constant connectedness and multitasking actually ruins the performance of our magnificent brain, and obstructs the matchless potential of our brain.
The little ping that announces an incoming e-mail, text message, or other notification dilutes our focus for about a minute and a half – distraction is an actual time killer. To our brain, all these little (trivial) interruptions are in fact extremely interesting, serious and urgent. Biologically they get noticed because they present a change. Consider that when we used to live more exposed to the elements, it was vital to react to things like sudden changes in

  • sound - oops bear roaring – today the little beep of our smart phone,
  • speed - things that move fast - those tiger attacks are better avoided – today the flashing lights on our phones
  • availability of food, drink, and other resources – eatable smell, color, - abundance of food everywhere around us – quick quick let’s gather it all
  • social information and gossip – who was attacked by whom and when? – but be honest: how important is Prince William really in your live?

We’re now literally bombarded with sudden changes from all directions and all the time.

Is stress common sense?

To get what happens biologically, it is important to note something fundamental from brain science: it is not just a matter of distinguishing relevant and irrelevant social information or of learning how to use time management and utility quadrants. In fact, it turns out that our brains have a hard time in general deciding what is and what isn’t important.
According to neuroscientist Daniel Levithin, the decision making network in our brain simply doesn’t prioritize. [ii] In other words, it considers the question of what socks to wear today just as urgent as the need to solve that complex business issue that’s occupying the team’s time. We might not be aware, but the energy used is the same.

And the worst news: what starts out as apparently harmless and perhaps useful emotional reward our brains produce, in overstimulation becomes addictive. Ever wondered why so many of us stay stuck in an ongoing and debilitating sense of rush, overwhelm, and exhaustion?
Why are we literally hooked to our smart phones as if they were a physical extension of our hand?
We simply feel completely stuck and trapped running the metaphorical hamster wheel. And once we are in it, we have no idea how we can get out of that race and find our peace; let alone reverse and actually source energy for what we do.
Being rushed, hurried and overwhelmed becomes the natural state to be in and our social network is “biologically” driven to – at least implicitly – encourage it. The nature of addiction is that humans simply can’t see a way out. We literally have a busyness blues.

Get the swift

The more we’re rushing, the less we notice we’re doing so – stress and pressure simply narrow our focus, which makes us lose our larger perspective and capacity for accurate deliberation – the body remains too often in R-System shut down.
Our implicit brain power focus remains on keeping busy for an illusion. Is that not stunning? And while we’re at it, we actually keep pushing away the very experience of ‘peace’ we think we’re working so hard to create. Suffering from our ‘busyness blues’ - we simply can’t see any other solution than to just keep working away. It pains one to realize this but our busyness actually wastes our life force energy and our real business potential.

And the good news is: if you feel that stress runs your life, or that it negatively influences the performance of your employees and organizational bottom line, the step out of this effect is not as difficult as our brains “like to suggest”. Energy is a frequency pattern we as humans can work with and learning how to do that can be swift.

[i] Compernolle, T. (2014), BrainChains: Discover Your Brain and Unleash Its Full Potential In a Hyperconnected Multitasking World, Compublications, Belgium,

[ii] Levithin, D.J. (2014), The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Penguin Random House LLC, New York NY]