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WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Are You Addicted to Being Busy?  

A veteran leader confesses his busyness addiction and reveals the toll it's taking on his life. Can you relate?
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What happens in your brain when you're addicted to something? Psychologists explain that when someone takes their drug of choice, the brain's reward systems are stimulated. Over time all that stimulation desensitizes the brain and the addict needs a bigger and bigger hit to experience the same jolt of pleasure and gets less and less enjoyment out of lower key, everyday joys.

We're used to hearing this story about substances like cocaine and heroin, but is it possible that many of us have a less dramatic but still biologically rooted addiction? That's the contention of a truly fascinating post from blogger and veteran engineering manager Michael Lopp who writes at Rands in Repose.

The Builder's High

Rather than speak about deeply destructive highs such as those from drugs, Loop confesses his addiction to "the Builder's High" -- that jolt of satisfaction you get from creating something truly useful or meaningful. While this "high" sounds like a far healthier alternative to other sources of brain stimulation, Loop contends that it is possible to become biologically addicted to getting stuff done.

"Each time you build, the high becomes slightly harder to achieve. Part of your hormonal reward is based on the fact the thing you just built has never been built before. It's novel and your brain commensurately rewards the new because it has learned after millions of years of evolution that doing so is collectively good for our species," he writes. "The situation arises: you enjoy the highs, but you are unable to create enough new to support these highs, so you trick your brain into rewarding you for doing far less--you convince your brain of the dubious value of being busy."

And like an addiction to booze or pills, an addiction to busyness can be hard to kick for the simple reason that having a jam-packed schedule feels good. It flatters our egos and makes us feel important. "Admit it, if you've been a leader for while, it's a source of pride that you're booked all day--you're important--you're so... busy," Loop says.

What's the Harm?

Of course, while the biology of an addiction to busyness might be analogous to the biology of an addiction to drugs, the former is far less destructive, but it's not totally consequence free. Loop bravely confesses the cost of his own busyness addiction in the post.

"I know when I crossed a threshold into unhealthy busy. It happens at 4am. My eyes open and I'm deeply worried about... something. Let's be clear what is happening here: at a time when my body should be resting and repairing, my brain believes the correct course of action is to wake-up in the middle of the night to work. These 4am worry sessions are a clear sign that I'm am losing the chemical arms race with my brain," he writes.

Sound familiar at all? Then Loop urges you to take a moment and consider whether it might be time to critically examine your uncontrolled urge for constant busyness. "We've created an impressive amount of institutionalized drama around getting things done," he says. "We are surround by stimuli built to drive us harder and faster...my advice is to constantly take the time to stop and understand the true nature of your busy."

Do you need to take that first step to recovery by standing up and saying: 'Hello, my name is X and I a busyness addict?"

Last updated: Jun 24, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.




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