Why you might be underperforming at work

Did you know that the most frequently used button in elevators is the "close doors" one? Have you ever noticed people frantically tapping it 7 or 8 times, even with one leg still outside? Maybe it's your favourite button too.

Do you recognise the frustration if the elevator doors take the full 5 seconds to close, even when you know that these few seconds won't make any difference?

This elevator thing is just one small illustration of a feeling many people share, at work, and even in their personal lives: feeling constantly crazed, having the impression of always running behind, having no time to be creative and focus on the stuff that really matters. Not being your best self at work, and just not getting fulfilment out of your life anymore.

What exactly makes you so frantic? What are the effects of it on your work performance? And, most importantly, what can you do about it?

First, the 3 main contributing factors.

Time pressure

The first and most obvious factor simply is time pressure. The complaint we hear most often from participants in our courses is "I just have too many things to do". This may be very familiar to you too, no?

It often comes with a feeling of guilt. You might feel responsible if you don't keep up with the pressure. You believe it's your fault if you don't get everything done in time. That there must be something wrong with you, because everyone else is coping with it (or so it seems).

But is it really your fault? It is in the culture of many organisations to constantly strive to "do more with less", putting ever more pressure on people to get things done in less time, with less support staff, less budget, ... It's so engrained in management culture – even in the economy as a whole – that this "efficiency" idea is like a mantra that cannot be doubted.

The idea that there is something you are not doing right, is further reinforced by organisations when they offer you a time-management training for example. You should learn to manage your time in a better way, and the organisation is kind enough to help you with that. It's all on the individual, and the organisation bears no responsibility. But is that really the case?

Information overload

The second thing that gets most of us in the overdrive mode is the constant and never-ending stream of information. According to recent calculations, as a society we have created more information in the last decade than we did in all of human history before that.

On a daily basis, we take in 5 times as much information as we did 30 years ago: in the form of emails, news websites, advertising, magazines, social media, ... This means that we are spending a huge part of our day ploughing through all that information – and trying to ignore most of it. Not only at work, but also in supermarkets for example, where the average number of products has quadrupled in the last 4 decades. Maybe you too have already been comparing 24 kinds of breakfast cereal for their sugar content?

Again, the same question applies here: you may feel the pressure to be successful at dealing with all this information, but are you really personally responsible? Is it even humanly possible?

Digital distraction

Ping! A WhatsApp message comes in. Followed by the blip of a Facebook notification. A pop-up on your computer screens lets you know 5 new emails have arrived. You check out all your new messages, and before you know it, 30 minutes have passed and you have completely forgotten what you were doing.

This third aspect is closely related with the information overload. But it is not only the quantity of information that has an effect on your stress levels, it's also how it is delivered. With today's technology, that is instantaneous. Meaning you are facing a constant flow of interruptions.

When do you ever get the chance to work on something for even half an hour without being interrupted?

Overloaded circuits

What's the result of these 3 factors coming together? In an article in the Harvard Business Review, psychiatrist Edward Hallowell writes about "attention deficit trait", or ADT, a psychological condition that arises when you are faced with these factors for too long. The symptoms of ADT are inner frenzy, distractibility and impatience.

You probably know ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. This is a neurological disorder that has a genetic component. It can be aggravated by environmental factors. Attention Deficit Trait or ADT springs entirely from the environment. It is an artefact of modern life.

ADT develops slowly. There is no major crisis causing it, but rather a continuous stream of minor emergencies, while you are trying harder and harder to keep up. As we've seen, it often comes with a low-level but constant feeling of guilt and anxiety. While trying to face the reality of time pressure, overload of information and constant distraction, you get increasingly hurried, irritable and unfocused. In the meantime, you keep pretending that everything is fine.

If you want to understand how ADT develops, it's important to understand some basic neurology. Simply put, at a certain point your brain circuits get overloaded.

How your brain turns against you

Your brain is built up of different layers that have developed throughout thousands of years of evolution. The youngest part is the "thinking brain" or "higher brain" and is uniquely human. It is located in the frontal lobes and governs what is called "executive functioning". This is the region which helps you to make decisions and plans, that helps you be creative, set priorities and manage your time.

Beneath this is an older part of our brain, the so-called "reptile brain" or "lower brain" that governs basic functions such as hunger, sleep, sexual desire, breathing, heart rate – in one word: survival. When everything is fine, this part of your brain pumps up your motivation and helps you focus your attention on the task at hand.

However, when you are constantly faced with too much data to process in too little time, while being constantly interrupted, your reptile brain begins to panic, sends distress signals directly to your body, and takes charge of your executive functioning.

The higher brain has been "programmed" not to ignore these stress signals – after all, if something is attacking you, it"s better to react quickly and instinctively than to sit down and find a creative solution.

This is the best way to deal with wild animals or other physical threats. But our contemporary problems are of a completely different nature. The thing "attacking" us now is a failure of our higher brain. So we get in a catch-22 situation. When the higher brain receives distress signals from the lower brain, it tries to solve the problem by thinking, analysing and reasoning even harder. The result is that it gets even more exhausted, sending signals back to the lower brain: the situation is getting worse.

This is how you get caught in vicious cycles of stress, worrying and panicking.

Creating a brain-friendly work environment

Now, how can you survive these challenging circumstances? Or even better, how can you thrive at work, and in your personal life?

First of all, it's important to understand that not everything is your fault. You didn't invent this culture of (often false) efficiency, nor did you design your own brain.

Whenever you feel guilty and think that you are not trying hard enough, give yourself a break. As a figure of speech – be kind to yourself – but also literally. Taking regular breaks, such as going for a short walk, or doing a short meditation will help you "reset" your brain. Not opening your email first thing in the morning, but getting something done while your brain is still fresh.  Being more selective on which information you allow into your brain  and doing one thing at the time can help you feel less overwhelmed. 

These are only a few measures you can take on an individual level, and if you follow a mindful@work course, you will learn many more.

More than these individual measures, it is also the responsibility of an organisation to create a more humane and brain-friendly culture.

A simple measure can be for example to encourage people to take lunch breaks. Not behind their desks but together with others. Having conversations and feeling connected will help your brain to get out of the stress mode.

You can agree on "do not disturb" signals, especially in open landscape offices, and respect them. You can start meetings with a minute of silence, focusing on your breath, to help people "arrive" in the meeting and switch off from the busyness. Agree on what's better to send by email, and what's better to talk about in person or on the phone. Also avoiding back to back meetings, especially when they are online by agreeing to 45 or 50 minute slots so you have a  short pause before the next one. 

There are dozens of small measures you can take. Practicing mindfulness will help you to recognise what you exactly need and what the bottlenecks are in your workplace.

If you are a leader, reflect on how you can change the culture of immediacy and urgency into a more sustainable one. If you are not a leader, talk about your needs with your superior and your colleagues, proposing some ideas you can all benefit from.

Together, in small steps, we can create a kinder, more human work environment, in which people don't have to be reduced to robots on autopilot but in which they can be creative, focused and productive.