Written by Alice Giuditta
Do you often feel like everything needs to be done right away? This is how to address your hurry sickness.
You’ve snoozed your alarm twice and by the third ring there’s no more justifying it, so you peel yourself out of bed and trudge to the kitchen. You whip up breakfast, gulp it down, rush to your wardrobe to pull on whatever’s most accessible and dash to work.
On the Tube, you realise you haven’t booked that doctor’s appointment, or called your mum for that matter. Oh and, rats, you’ve got those birthday drinks tonight and you still haven’t bought a present, not even a card. You could swing by TK Maxx on the way back from work but aren’t you meant to pick up your dry cleaning this evening?
You look around the carriage at other passengers’ faces: expressionless, unbothered, not a bead of anxiety-induced sweat to be seen (only the glowing sheen of overheating on the Central Line). “How is everyone else fine?” you think. “How are they fitting all this life stuff into life? How are they not hurtling through their days plagued by a ceaseless sense of urgency, putting out fires everywhere? Is it just me?”
No. It’s not just you – it’s a lot of us, actually. And what you’re experiencing has a name: hurry sickness.
What is hurry sickness?
Coined by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and RH Rosenman in their 1985 book Type A Behavior And Your Heart, hurry sickness is described as an excessive sense of time urgency. It’s not technically a medical condition, but it’s certainly a wellbeing phenomenon.
If you feel constantly rushed, anxious and have a disproportionate feeling of urgency to get things done, you could be experiencing hurry sickness, which can be detrimental to your health and inhibit your enjoyment of life.
“The chronic stress of constant urgency activates our survival wiring,” says Dr Erica Simon, clinical psychologist and founder of SeriesBe, a consultancy service for start-ups taking a preventative approach to burnout in the workplace.“It evolved over millions of years to respond to acute, immediate threats where we need to meet a safety demand. Once resolved, our bodies are meant to pull back into a restorative mode.”
But modern-day stress is different. “It doesn’t have a beginning, middle and an end like an acute physical danger. So the cascade of physiological changes that occur in the body (increased respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, adrenaline etc) maintain over a longer time than this system was meant to be activated.”
This can lead to a slew of health issues, including “increased inflammation, impaired immune system functioning, emotion dysregulation, sleep disruption and more”.
Plus, when you’re racing through life with haste, you’re far more likely to neglect your own self-care, viewing it as a hindrance and a waste of time compared to the never-ending list of things you expect yourself to accomplish.
What causes hurry sickness?
“In many modern cultures, productivity is seen as the measure of our worth, and engaging in rest and play are almost shameful to admit,” says Dr Simon. “Being lazy or doing absolutely nothing of substance, even for a short bit, is seen as a character defect.”
This isn’t helped by our digital connectedness. “Everything is instantaneous and seemingly urgent,” Dr Simon adds.“And it’s all on our phones, which we have with us at all times, so we have the perception that everyone is supposed to always be available.”
You put this all together and how could we not feel a desperate need to get ahead of it all?We convince ourselves that we’re the problem, that we must not be trying hard enough, and that if we push to get more done, it might just make the anxiety go away.“But in actuality,” says Dr Simon, “it’s a problem at the societal level.”
How to slow down and ease hurry sickness
While turning society on its head isn’t exactly an instant option, there are steps you can take on an individual level to calm your anxiety and retrain your nervous system to exist in a state of calm and balance, instead of chronic fight or flight.
Learn to prioritise with a long-term lens
Much of your stress may arise from the frustration of never being able to do everything, and in turn struggling to determine what to prioritise.
This is a typical human problem, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research. It shows that when faced with tasks of mixed urgency and importance, people generally have a bias towards time-sensitive tasks, even when the less urgent ones offer greater rewards. It’s called the “Mere Urgency Effect” and you can blame this for your poor task and time management.
The good news? The effect is minimised when we pause and consider the big picture consequences of our choices. Taking this moment makes us more likely to prioritise a low urgency task of long-term importance over an urgent but less important one.
To implement this practice in your life, you can use the ‘Eisenhower Matrix’, popularised by Stephen Covey in his globally-acclaimed book The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People. This axis of urgency and importance helps you weigh up the long-term outcomes of your daily tasks and focus on what will be most fruitful, not just most productive.
Upon first glance, you may fall into ‘the urgency trap’, meaning the temptation to exclusively focus on the Urgent & Important quadrant. This is unlikely to fulfil you in the long-run, though, as many of life’s most self-affirming activities – calling your family, exercising, enjoying your hobbies – are important, but aren’t urgent and never will be (until, perhaps, it’s too late).
Instead, try blending ‘Urgent & Important’ tasks with ‘Not Urgent & Important’ tasks as your top priorities. Covey suggests labelling the former as ‘Do’ items, and the latter as ‘Schedule’ items – they don’t have to be done immediately, but you ensure they don’t slip through the cracks by planning a time for them and following through.
Bunch your tasks together, then schedule them
When you don’t schedule time to tackle your to-do list and deal with it on the fly instead, it can feel like it’s bleeding into every moment of your daily life. Even when you’ve ticked off one piece of admin, you still don’t feel at ease because five other incomplete items still linger overhead.
To give yourself some breathing room, try bunching related tasks together so you can get the hassle out of the way in one go, and actually take a break in between.
For example, set one evening a week for checking in with family. Use this time to call everyone you’ve been meaning to touch base with. Then kick up your feet, grab a glass of whatever calls to you, and breathe a sigh of relief.
If you have a longish list of admin to deal with, like paying bills, booking a doctor’s appointment, and tightening the screws on the kitchen door handle, why not tick them all off within a couple hours on a Saturday morning?
By blocking out chunks of time like this, you can put those tasks out of mind knowing they’ll be dealt with at their allocated hour. You might also feel less overwhelmed knowing you’re addressing one overarching task (like “admin” or “family”) with a few sub-points, rather than lots of little items on your list.
Prioritise pleasure with a zero-productivity buffer zone
Make a concerted effort not just to manage your life, but to enjoy it, too. Counteract the hyper-fixation on productivity by specifically assigning time for doing nothing. Well, nothing in particular, at least.
Try creating a buffer zone around your daily responsibilities for simply being present instead of rushing from one thing to the next. No, this doesn’t have to mean meditating or staring at a tree, it could be eating your breakfast in front of an episode of your favourite sitcom rather than gobbling it down and jumping in the shower. Perhaps it’s cuddling up with your pets or dancing around the kitchen to Noughties classics. Some days, you might actually want to use the time to stare off into space (life, eh?).
Mornings are a nice time for this, to set a slower, more relaxed tone for your day. Just 20 minutes will do, and whatever you fill that time with, you’ll send your brain and nervous system the message that you’re not in fight or flight mode – you have time to enjoy yourself without rushing onto the next thing.
Accept that you can never clear the decks
Before a feeling of failure comes an expectation… and could the ones we hold of ourselves possibly be the slightest bit unreasonable?
It’s not a crazy idea, given that they’re often based on other people’s lives and false conclusions we’ve drawn about what that means for us and the success of our own lives.
“We live in a society that tells us that the sum total of our worth is what we produce,” says Dr Simon. “That the most valuable members of society are the ones who do the most.” We look at these figures of success, the Michelle Obamas and Oprah Winfreys of the world, and wonder why we just can’t seem to make as much of our time as they do. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, right?
“That is simply untrue,” counters Dr Simon. “The people who do ‘the most’ have a lot of assistance.They have people to clean and cook, even do tasks like read and respond to work emails. We have to first take the radical step of acknowledging this.It’s an act of courage.”
With the realisation that nobody, not even Oprah or Michelle, can juggle it all, you can start being less hard on yourself and more realistic, instead.
“Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones,” suggests Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Week’, his guide to ‘time management for mortals’. “You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do – and there always will be – the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done, and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.”
Stop believing you can do the impossible and, suddenly, doing what you can feels a lot more rewarding. Let go of your desire to be superhuman, and you just might find that being human is enough. It’s quite pleasant, in fact – no sweaty lycra jumpsuits, no world on your shoulders, and rather a lot to enjoy, if you just pause for a moment to notice.
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