Too Busy to Think? You May Suffer From 'Hurry Sickness'

The ailment is hazardous to both your health and your career, says a B-school prof.

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By Anne Fisher

This story originally appeared on Fortune Magazine

Eating lunch at your desk while also checking emails and talking on the phone is one symptom. So is doing something else while on conference calls, or even while brushing your teeth. We all find ourselves multitasking now and then, but what about habitually interrupting someone who is talking, or always getting frustrated in a checkout line or in traffic, even when it's moving along smoothly? When microwaving something for 30 seconds, do you feel the urge to find something else to do while you wait?

If one or more of these sounds all too familiar, you probably have a bad case of a malady that psychologists have dubbed "hurry sickness." A sure sign is "repeatedly pushing the door-close button on an elevator," says Richard Jolly, a London Business School professor and executive coach. "Half the time, those buttons aren't even connected to anything but a light bulb — they're what's called a "mechanical placebo.' But even if they worked, how much time would they save? Five seconds?"

To the hurry-sick, five seconds can seem like forever. About 95% of managers Jolly has studied over the past 10 years, both in his MBA classes and his coaching practice, suffer from the ailment, defined as the constant need to do more, faster, even when there's no objective reason to be in such a rush. Eventually, hurry sickness really can make you sick, since it increases the body's output of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system and has been linked with heart disease.

What's more, despite the fact that "many executives see it as a badge of honor," Jolly says, hurry sickness can also damage your career even before it wrecks your health, because being in an incessant hurry has a way of making people miss the forest for the trees.

"We're losing the ability to stand back and think, and to work smarter rather than harder," Jolly observes. "Technology often gets the blame, but technology isn't really the culprit. It's just that being "connected' every minute of the night and day means people are easily distracted by minutiae instead of taking time to slow down a bit and ask the big, important questions."

One unhappy result is that hurry-sick employees and managers often get pigeonholed as "anxious overachievers, a type that is useful, indeed indispensable, in organizations," he adds. "But they become increasingly bitter when more thoughtful — and perhaps less "hard-working' — managers get the top jobs."

Overcoming the condition is deceptively simple, but it usually takes some determination. First, identify which goals are essential, either for succeeding in your current job or for taking the next step up. Then, carve out time in your day to focus your attention exclusively on them, with no distractions.

In coaching sessions with hurry-sick managers, Jolly asks them to write down their two or three most important priorities. Then, he asks them to go back over their calendars for the past six months to a year and pinpoint how much time they had spent on achieving those goals. "One CEO realized that he had actually spent about 1% of his time and energy on the things he really needed to accomplish," Jolly says. "The ideal is more like 50%."

Of course, finding uninterrupted time can be a challenge, but it can be done. Jolly knows one executive who invented a fictitious client named Mr. Smith. "He regularly books two-hour appointments with Mr. Smith," Jolly says. "Then he goes off somewhere, with no laptop or smartphone, and thinks. Other people protect their thinking time by taking long bike rides."

Letting go of trivial details at the office while on vacation is especially helpful — and especially difficult — for the hurry-sick, Jolly adds. One of his coaching clients came up with a novel approach. "He put a standard auto-reply message on his email, saying the usual "I'll be away on vacation on such-and-such dates' and so on, except for one difference," Jolly says. "He had first set up a separate email account, which he gave as the way to contact him in a genuine emergency. The address was goaheadandruinmyvacation@…com." No one took him up on it.

Anne Fisher

Anne Fisher is the "Ask Annie" columnist & management/workplace contributor for Fortune.

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