Working Smarter

The Power of Patience: Antidote to Stress, Frenzy, and Overwhelm

Posted by Joe Robinson

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“Patience” is a word we normally hate to hear, because it usually means we have lost ours. Being reminded that we need to take a minute when we are in a state of hyper time frenzy is like being told to keep calm when you are verging on a primal scream. It’s a concept the emotions refuse to allow in when we are swept away by frenzy and frazzle.

In a world of permanent rush hour, patience seems like some obsolete remnant of a quainter time, something from a do-gooder’s list of manners, something that develops character and all that. Yet this increasingly rare act of discipline is the antidote for much of what ails us in the modern workplace and life. Deploy it, and you kill time urgency, overwhelm, irritability, and a lot of stress. Used regularly, it can do wonders for work-life balance, stress management, and productivity. Are we up to it in an immediate gratification world?

WHAT ATTACHMENT?

First, let’s see where impatience has gotten us. The reflex to race through the day, multitask, short-circuit brain cells with information overload, be in constant texting contact, and go for the next source of stimulation has helped to shrink the average human attention span to eight seconds, less than that of a goldfish. That makes things difficult, since attention is the chief productivity tool.

There are all those embarrassing emails filled with typos and missing attachments. How many times have you sent an email raving about an attachment and forgot to send it? 

Impatience drives multitasking, resulting in the appearance of speed—and more than a few mistakes, since rushing kicks thinking down to the rote and panicked floors of the brain. Research from the University of Michigan and Vanderbilt, among others, shows that multitasking actually slows you down. Brain neurons have to go through a “where was I last time I was here and where was I going?” exercise each time they jump back and forth between tasks, which slows productivity by more than 40%, according to David Meyer at the University of Michigan.

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The forces of impatience can’t resist self-interrupting to check email, and that makes work take longer. Constant interruptions to check mail erode the chief tool of anyone trying to get anything done: concentration. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. Interruptions erode impulse control, the discipline you need to resist time-wasting tangents.

THE WHIP OF HURRY-WORRY

Without functioning self-regulation equipment to calmly direct attention and avoid temptations, it takes more time to get work done and aggravates stress as time urgency cracks the whip of hurry-worry. Impatience puts us on edge, a few hairs away from irritability and anger—and clogged arteries. Studies show that’s the pattern time frenzy follows, leading to heart attacks. Now there’s a time-waster. Think about all those things you won’t be able to get done if you are suddenly demised.

Impatience leads to a host of bad outcomes—lashing out, curt emails, impulsive decisions, conflict with tortoises moving too slowly for your liking, and simmering anger that smolders away in your body and contributes to heart disease. One 2007 study from the University of South Carolina found that anger led to a 1.7 times higher chance of developing hypertension, with a 90% increased risk for coronary heart disease.

Hurry-worry makes you think you have no time to plan your priorities each morning, talk with a colleague or supervisor to distribute workload more effectively, and push the go-button before a report, product, or post has been analyzed and thought enough about to release into the world. Patience is the grown-up in the room; impatience the adolescent.

Patience doesn’t mean moving at the speed of a tree sloth. It is what is known as deliberate speed, informed performance, thought before action, not hurrying. As the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once put it, “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

It’s the hurrying that drives mistakes, since we’re operating at a speed faster than brains can manage well. This is the realm of mistakes and the home of the stress response, which interprets time urgency as if every minute of the day was an emergency—which turns on the stress response. With friends like ourselves around, who needs enemies?

FALSE URGENCY

We can work swiftly without the attention deficit of hurrying and the sabotage of what’s known as System 1 thinking—jump-off-the-cliff, impulsive thinking, minus considered options. That means bringing awareness to your pace. Are you hyperventilating? Racing for nothing? Catch yourself and bring attention back to the moment. Is it an emergency or a speed trap? Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when you haven’t taken time to think about what is urgent and what isn’t.

Are you working frantically with one eye on the stack of to-do’s? Focus on one task at a time, which is all you can do anyway. When the goal is just to get things done so you can get to other things that need to be done, you don’t have attention on the tasks you are doing. Productivity is all about the present, not what’s next on the list.

Studies show that when we are patient and absorbed in the moment of what we’re doing we like what we’re doing more, remember it longer, are at our happiest, and can experience the power of optimal experience, when our skills meet a challenge 

Patience allows us to work smarter, more efficiently, and more in control of our world. This is crucial to preventing stress. The more control we feel we have over events, the less stress we have. Patience gives you perceived control by providing attention unhijacked by frenzy and the hurry-worry of trying to be somewhere you’re not.

Yes, we all have time pressures to deal with, but we can handle it without resorting to frantic default rushing and stress. Much of the time the race pace is fueled by self-deadlines that we have created and set up ourselves with. “I’m going to get this project done by four o’clock.” We rush to make that time and get angry when we don’t.

The gift of patience is that it is something within our control. All we have to do is to take a breath, recalibrate the false urgency of frenzy to the calm of attention, and exercise this act of discipline as one of the best tools to turn down pulse rates, bad moods, and irritable days. It’s a choice.

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Tags: overwhelm, multitasking and stress, employee stress management, time urgency, stress and patience

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