Originally published 23rd March 2020
A short 5 minute video is available for this post
I first noticed it 15 years ago.
Back then, my daily commute involved changing trains at Clapham Junction, Europe’s busiest station. Every morning people would run up the stairs and throw themselves at the closing doors to try and catch the train I’d just got off. On average, I reckon about 20% made it, leaving the rest standing there, breathless, heart racing, blood pressure pumping and faces like thunder while they waited for the next train in to London’s Victoria station.
Which arrived just 2 minutes later.
Now, there’s probably a few situations where those 2 minutes might really matter, but I can’t think of many. Certainly not enough to justify the swarms of London commuters throwing themselves at closing doors every morning. So why do they do it?
It’s called Hurry Sickness. It was first identified by cardiologists Friedman and Rosenman in the 1950’s, although the credit should perhaps go to their upholsterer. Arriving to repair the chairs in their waiting room, the upholsterer pointed out that they had a strange wear pattern. Rather than the middle of the seat cushion the chairs in the cardiac waiting room were worn on the front. It turned out that, whilst most patients waited patiently, sitting back and relaxed in the chairs, the cardiac patients tended to sit on the edge of the seat, fidgeted and leapt up frequently.
The cardiac patients were literally all on the edge of their seats.
This prompted Friedman and Rosenman to look deeper into their patients. They noticed that they were all ambitious and driven people living frenetic lives, but that much of that frenetic-ness was self-induced. They spent their lives constantly in a hurry, and that hurrying was making them sick.
Based on my observations at Clapham Junction not much has changed since the 1950’s. For many, hurrying is a way of life. But it hasn’t always been this way. Until relatively recently, being unhurried used to be a sign of wealth and status. A slow and measured pace used to be an indicator of success.
Nowadays the opposite is true.
Successful people are in a hurry, and people wear being hurried as a badge of success: we scan the supermarket for the shortest queue, jump lanes in the traffic jam and open the microwave door before it beeps. At work we run from meeting to meeting, flit between tasks and finish people’s sentences for them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting there’s never a need to hurry. I’ve had calls telling me to get to the hospital as fast as possible, I’ve ran across airports to catch important flights and I’ve intervened to bring issues to a necessarily swift conclusion.
But most of the time I am just hurrying for hurry’s sake, saving seconds I don’t need to save. And those seconds come at a price. The symptoms of Hurry Sickness include irritability, anxiety, insomnia, headaches, weight gain, back pain and stomach problems. Unchecked it can lead to chronic fatigue, broken relationships, heart disease and premature death.
It drives us to break the speed limit…and not just on the roads. According to psychologist Robert Holden “we propel ourselves so fast that we often exceed the speed limit of intelligence and common sense”. To put it another way, Hurry Sickness makes us stupid as well as sick.
And it’s becoming an epidemic.
How ironic, then, that the COVID-19 epidemic might prove to be the wake-up call we need to cure us of our busyness epidemic. Social-isolation, home-working and cancelled travel, business and leisure plans, suddenly give us time to take a long hard look at how we are living our lives, how we are defining and showcasing our ‘success’ and what it’s costing us. An enforced change to the way we work is a great opportunity to look at the way we were working and ask ourselves why? How does it feel to have to work differently feel? And what opportunity does that distance present?
So why not take a moment right now to stop and ask yourself whether the busyness that you live, feel and express is purposeful? Is it effective? Is it an unavoidable consequence of the successful life you lead or is it, perhaps, a choice you make?
If you don’t like some of your answers to those questions, then maybe its time to make a positive change?
But where to start?
As with all addictions, the first step is to admit we might have a problem.
And then, from there, we need to make some changes in order to break the pattern.
For me – because 16 years ago I think I may well have thrown myself at those closing train doors – I decided to follow the example of those whose job it is to drive at breakneck speed: Formula 1 drivers. I’ve been privileged to learn some of the inner workings of an F1 team, and I was interested to note that at the end of every session, whether its practice, qualifying or the actual race, the drivers sit down and critically review their performance. Slowly and in detail they reflect on why they did what they did and to what extent it helped them to achieve their ultimate goal.
That is, to go faster, they deliberately slowed down.
Throughout the day, day after day, they deliberately and consciously step off the track, critique their recent laps and use that insight to help them go faster.
Following their lead, I started scheduling regular pit stops throughout my day, a few conscious minutes here and there where I could slow down, step back from what I am doing and ask myself to what extent what I was doing and how I was being was helping me achieve my overall goals.
I’m not going to lie to you; it wasn’t easy. Stopping and slowing down didn’t come easy to me.
It took planning; if I didn’t plan it, it didn’t happen.
It took practice; because at first, I didn’t know what the heck I should be analysing.
It took persistence; because often I’d find that two minutes after a ‘pit stop’ I’d be back driving the same old lines.
It took purpose; because for it to be worth it, I needed to know what I was trying to get to and who I wanted to be.
And it took partnering; because like an F1 driver, I was part of a team, and to be successful, we all needed to change, to call out each other’s purposeless hurrying.
That was fifteen years ago. Pit-stops – both scheduled and unscheduled – are now an ingrained habit. Often, they are just a few seconds long because, just like an F1 pit crew, the more you practice the quicker you get.
But the longest and most important stop I make is the time I spend every morning quietly and deliberately reflecting on how I lived yesterday’s ‘race’ and how I can use that experience to live today’s smarter, better and wiser.
And this is where I would encourage you to start, right here, right now.
In truth, this morning pit-stop is the inspiration behind a Brush with Coaching; I want to help and encourage you to take a few minutes every morning to purposefully slow down and reflect about the day gone and the day ahead.
Because whilst it might be fun sometimes to live life like a hare, they only live for about 5 years.
Tortoise, on the other hand live, for over a hundred.