Busy is the New Black

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com

As an entrepreneur, I’m driven by big ideas, bigger goals, hard deadlines, and have been in the process of cultivating, selling, and creating new companies while at the same time raising a family, nurturing a marriage, living a life. And what I know is that busyness, in and of itself, does not a more productive career—or person—make.

As an expert in the world of health, wellness, and lifestyle, I know full well the ill effects of overdoing. Which is why I’ve made it my mission to help people find ways to dial back their stress by shifting their stress response—something I know can be done because I’ve seen the research, and I’ve experienced it myself. It’s why I launched meQuilibrium. More about that later.

I’ve said that stress is the new fat—that, like obesity, stress has reached epidemic proportions. As you already well know, it’s the source of so many other health problems that it’s hard to limit it to “just” stress. It has a way of tripping the wires in every area of our lives, causing emotional reactions, chronic distraction and lack of focus, sleep problems, stomach issues, libido problems, you name it.

If stress wasn’t bad enough, we’ve made it worse for ourselves by associating it with success. After all, the more stressed you are, the more successful you must be, right? And if that’s the case, then busy must be the new black—it’s in fashion, and it goes with everything. But how long are we going to buy into this idea? (Find out how you’re wired to view stress as a status symbol.)

Dr. Suzanne Koven, a Harvard Medical School faculty member who’s practiced primary care internal medicine at Mass General for 20 years, wrote in this piece on boston.com (“Busy is the new sick”), how she’s seeing a range of symptoms, all pointing toward the same issue:

“In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”

In the New York Times’ Opinionator post “Status and Stress,” Moises Velasquez-Manoff points to a sense of helplessness and lack of control as the hallmarks of the kind of stress that kills. This is why those who grow up on the poor end of the economic spectrum aren’t going to fare as well—not only because of the stress rooted into their very identity from a young age, but because they do not have the resources to pull themselves out.

Well, we do. And not only can we use them to our own advantage, we can offer them to the people we invest so much in—the people who run our companies, who work alongside us. That’s the idea. We can all do yoga and meditate and seek support on our own, but until we systematize stress reduction, our companies, our staffs, our most precious cargo will be at substantial risk.

Manage your individual and team stress

Leaders need to walk the talk. And what I’ve always done is make sure I have something to anchor me, no matter how crazy my week gets. I take a few moments to myself every morning—to stretch, enjoy my coffee, read, think about my goals. I make dinner with my family a priority, always have. Not just to eat, but to take the time to prepare it, share it, spend time doing anything but work. It goes without saying that I’d be really up the river without my exercise, which not only has kept me in the shape I want, but in a much calmer state as well.

But what are you doing for yourself—and for the teams you work with and who work for you? We’re all beyond busy, but it’s worth asking ourselves what we’re so busy doing? Because busyness, in my experience, is often the enemy of focus and productivity. How can you streamline your efforts, prioritize and manage in ways that allow your teams to do their best work without tapping out totally?

The business that pays real attention to stress levels and responds to them is the one that will best leverage its strengths. I’m not talking about occasional pizza lunches or drinks out. I’m talking about your philosophy, your position on stress, burn-out, overwhelm. Start asking these simple questions to get a better sense of and grip on your team’s stress levels and help them be more resilient and productive.  What do you have in place to be sure your team doesn’t tap out or leave altogether? How do you manage the flow and the load?  What do you do to encourage camaraderie, support, and the regular release of tension at the workplace?

Find ways to guide and support your team efforts and take advantage of the resources available to change the way you think, work, and succeed.

Let’s not confuse busyness with progress. Don’t just keep busy—keep yourself well.