If your days feel frantic and your to-do list always exceeds the time you have available to complete it, you might think the solution to your woes is better time management. This sounds sensible, but psychology suggests all your efforts to be more productive will probably just make the situation worse.
"Time management, we believe, is the solution to our busyness: if we could organize our time better, we'd be less overwhelmed, happier, and more effective. We are completely wrong on all three counts, and it's damaging our lives and our careers," business psychologist Tony Crabbe has written, citing research on the subject.
The vicious cycle of workaholism
Stanford researcher and author Emma Seppala totally agrees. "Not only does workaholism double the risk of depression and anxiety, it actually lowers productivity and decreases work performance, according to research by Steven Sussman, a professor of preventative medicine and psychology at the University of Southern California," she wrote on Quartz recently.
That's not bad enough for you? "It also leads to sleep problems and shortened attention spans, both of which conspire to get in the way of our ability to do good work. Workaholism is bad for employers as well. It leads to stress-related accidents, absenteeism, higher employee turnover, lower productivity and higher medical costs," she adds.
Chasing productivity, in other words, just makes us feel more overwhelmed, which in turn pushes up to try even harder to be more productive, making us feel even more frantic, and so on. How do we break out of the vicious cycle? Seppala offers a few suggestions on Quartz.
1. Just stop working sometimes!
Science shows that working less can actually help you get more done. But only if you detach fully and really catch your breathe.
"Sabine Sonnentag, a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Mannheim in Germany, has found that people who do not know how to step away from work during their downtime experienced increased exhaustion over the course of one year and became less resilient in the face of stressful work conditions. By contrast, gaining some emotional distance from highly demanding work tends to help people recover from stress faster and leads to increased productivity," writes Seppala.
2. Quit caffeine.
If you told me to do this a couple of years ago, I would have laughed in your face. But thanks to a year spent breastfeeding a sleep-resistant baby, I was forced to give up my beloved coffee habit and I have to grudgingly admit my stress levels have fallen sharply (once the baby finally learned to sleep, that is). Seppala suggests my experience isn't unique.
"Caffeine is a stimulant drug--albeit a socially accepted one. When we drink coffee, it raises cortisol (our 'stress' hormone) above its natural levels. Cortisol helps us wake up in the morning and have energy to start the day. However, raising it to unusually high levels through coffee is the reason we sometimes feel so jittery," she writes.
"This means we wind up depending on anxiety to fuel ourselves to get through our overscheduled days."
3. Reflect to replenish.
"People who consider the positive parts of their job at the end of their workdays--particularly the ways in which their work benefited others--had higher levels of well-being and happiness," Seppala claims.
And professional gratitude isn't just for those who obviously serve others, like teachers and firefighters. Every job has positive aspects if you have the right attitude towards your work. "Perhaps your job helps pay for your family's housing and groceries, or your helpful attitude at work has made you a mentor to a younger colleague," she suggests. So take a little time tonight to think about how you helped others today if you want to feel less frantic tomorrow.
Intrigued by Seppala's work? Here's a recent post about her research into the right mindset for success that you might want to check out.