Bill was the busiest person I ever coached, and his life was cut tragically short. His business thrived, but he was worn thin. Bill loved his work, but he was exhausted by the pressures of the market and his endless people problems.
At first, I taught him how to manage, but very little was sticking. He forgot his assignments, and we seemed to have the same conversations every week. I realized we needed to deal with his overwhelm first.
Bill didn’t have his own office. He was interrupted multiple times during our calls as he paced around his sales floor. He took his semi-retired father’s office, unsubscribed to dozens of email lists, deleted social media accounts and much more.
Within a few weeks, unsolicited, he sent me a complex and brilliant spreadsheet. “I did some noodling about possible new product lines,” he wrote. “Let me know what you think.” Spontaneously, he was doing high-level strategic thinking in a way I didn’t know he could.
“Who is this guy?” I remember thinking. He suddenly could think holistically about his business and managed his people intuitively. I was elated, and so was he. In the course of a month, he became far more intelligent, centered and aware. He had been transformed.
I left the coaching company I was working for, and he was transferred to another coach. A couple of years later, I emailed Bill to see how he was doing. No response. Something bugged me about that, so I emailed the other coach.
Bill, it turned out, had taken his own life.
I don’t know exactly what happened, but I have suspicions. Bill was ambitious and high-energy. He loved his family and had big dreams about where his life could go. But Bill was addicted to busyness, and when he detoxed from it, I suspect the emotions that overwhelm served to repress were more than he could handle.
Busyness addiction is gaining awareness in our society. In Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, she writes: “One of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”
When I first added self-organization to my curriculum in 2004, I had no idea I would encounter addiction. This is not the kind of addiction people have to the latest smartphone game. This is the kind that destroys businesses and sometimes lives.
“What’s good about being busy?” I often ask my clients.
“Nothing!” they usually say.
“Nope,” I say. “It’s serving a purpose. Your job is to find out what that is. Otherwise, it will likely never change.”
As with most addictions, busyness serves a secret purpose: It makes the long day go faster, staves off boredom, makes life more exciting, makes us feel valuable and, for some, appears to medicate depression and anxiety.
But numbing always comes with a price. The most unappreciated prices are how much less intelligent and aware it makes us.
When I work with clients, chronic overwhelm is the first thing I address because it often reveals that they know exactly how to solve their own problems, but they can’t do so operating as impaired as if they drank a fifth of whiskey for breakfast every day.
The most shocking thing I’ve encountered is how resistant addicted clients can be. You might think that a person who hires a coach to improve their work-life balance, increase their productivity and grow their business would be an easy sell on getting out of overwhelm. Unfortunately, very often they’re not.
Like many addicts, they say they want to change, but their behavior tells the real story. They delay progress indefinitely or make temporary small changes to appease the process. When called on their behavior, they become defensive and make excuses. As any addiction counselor can tell you, it’s often like talking to two different people in one. One part sincerely wants change, but the addict fights the process at every step, and the former can’t seem to see the latter. They think they’re doing the best that they can, but they’re going nowhere.
They play the victim of circumstance, blaming the latest thing that came up, when such things have been coming up for decades. They blame their employees. They blame the industry, the economy and even me for having unrealistic expectations or how I confront them.
These addicts want to improve their work-life balance by doing something rather than undoing their addiction, which is like trying to run a marathon faster and refusing to remove a ball and chain. I have seen entire business cultures operating this way, with everyone struggling to create change while unconsciously avoiding and sabotaging. So what to do about this?
1. Consider that it’s not a matter of whether or not you’re addicted to busyness, but how much. Try this on for size, and see how it fits.
2. Schedule at least 30 minutes every day to do nothing. I highly recommend meditation. But if you have a difficult time doing any kind of nothing, you may have an addiction issue.
3. Admit the problem and get help. Strong addiction requires support. There is often no telling what emotions are repressed underneath it. Without someone to help you take the necessary steps and help you process the formerly repressed emotions, detoxing from overwhelm can, as I’ve seen in extreme cases, cause panic attacks and other serious mental health issues. More commonly, it reveals manageable anxiety and depression, but it’s still not comfortable.
The good news is that if you suffer from addiction to busyness, there’s likely a more powerful, more intelligent and more conscious version of yourself waiting for you to have the courage to let him/her loose. Dare to be that person. Do whatever it takes to liberate that you. You’re worth it. If you’re ready, you may be interested in my course Clear Workspace, Open Mind that is a step-by-step system to get you organized from the inside out.