This psychological phenomenon explains why you can spend all day at work without getting anything done
It’s incredibly frustrating to leave work at the end of the day feeling like you accomplished basically nothing on your to-do list.
How is it possible that you spent eight (or more) hours at your desk, didn’t even goof off on Facebook, and still made no progress on the day’s goals?
Perhaps the problem is less a lack of conscientiousness and more that you’re losing sight of your top priorities. Instead of organizing your workday around those priorities, you continually jump on any small tasks that will make you feel productive but don’t matter so much in the long run, like responding to non-urgent emails.
It’s a problem that Rasmus Hougaard has labeled “action addiction.”
Hougaard is managing director at the Potential Project, a global organization that provides mindfulness training to companies. He’s also a co-author of the new book “One Second Ahead,” which outlines the hazards of an untrained mind in the workplace and offers strategies for training your brain through mindfulness practices.
Action addiction is a major consequence of an untrained mind, Hougaard told Business Insider, and its prevalence is increasing steadily among modern workers.
“When the mind’s under pressure — when it never gets a break from being bombarded with information and distractions — it can be difficult to maintain focus, let alone prioritize tasks,” the authors write in “One Second Ahead.”
For example, the authors spoke to a leader at a Japanese technology and consumer goods company, who said: “Quite often, I find that I’m so overwhelmed with information and distractions that I just jump on whatever feels most pressing in the moment. It’s like an impulse that’s hard to control.”
The authors write that accomplishing a new task — whether that’s firing off a quick email or responding to a colleague’s request for help — triggers the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps regulate the brain’s reward and pleasure centers.
The untrained mind, Hougaard argues, is on some level addicted to instant gratification and that dopamine release, and seeks them out at the expense of making headway on truly important tasks. As a result, performance can suffer because you fall behind on your main responsibilities.
“You keep on spinning your wheels instead of doing the right things,” Hougaard told Business Insider.
Here’s how you can tell if you’re addicted to action: When you first arrive at your desk, try sitting there and doing absolutely nothing for three minutes. (You can stare out the window or into your blank computer screen.) If that’s hard to do, the authors write, you’re probably experiencing some degree of action addiction.
So how do you overcome the urge to accomplish something relatively unimportant just because it feels important in the moment?
The authors suggest a simple “breath break.” Instead of jumping immediately into action, stop and take a breath.
“Endure the discomfort of conflicting priorities,” the authors write, referring to the conflict between accomplishing something that feels pressing and putting it on hold so you can work on something more important.
While you’re taking a breath, remember what your priorities are and then make a decision about what to do next based on those goals.
The authors acknowledge that their solution may seem too easy: “Although it may sound simple, taking a breath to recall your priorities can be difficult. When faced with multiple tasks, doing nothing but breathing may trigger restlessness or even anxiety.”
Yet if you repeat this breath break every time you’ve got the urge to launch into a seemingly urgent task, the authors say you can overcome action addiction and develop a well-trained mind.
“You can gain one second of mental freedom to get ahead of your mental impulses,” they write.
Ultimately, that one second can save you hours of extra work and the accompanying frustration.
By Shana Lebowitz.