Are You Addicted to Doing?

When work life is overwhelming, we can get stuck in a loop of "busyness"—keeping the mind occupied with tasks to avoid work, which increases our stress levels. Explore these mindfulness tips to slow down so you can get more done.

Vincent Besnault/Getty Images

Perhaps you’re familiar with this experience: After a long week of work, the weekend finally arrives. It’s time to wind down, relax, and do nothing. However, before 9 a.m. Saturday morning you’ve organized three social appointments, ordered a new IKEA closet, and set in motion four other plans that will keep you active for the rest of the weekend.

Or something like this has happened to you: It’s 8 a.m. and you’re in the office. On your desk is a clear list of the four important priorities of the day. Your phone rings, you answer it, and, before you know it, it’s 5 p.m. and time to go home. Your list is still there, untouched and unfulfilled.

Both cases are examples of action addiction, a deep-rooted human condition caused by imbalances in the chemicals of our brain. The hormone dopamine is the key player. Dopamine is a highly addictive, naturally produced reward-drug that, when released in the brain, provides us a short-term sense of enjoyment, relaxation, and gratification. Dopamine is a main driver behind our constant busyness. When organizing the three social appointments, ordering the new IKEA closet, or checking our Facebook page, dopamine is released. We feel good. For a moment. Then the brain craves another kick. More actions. And over time we are caught in a vicious circle of action and reward. Action addiction is in the making. Does it sound familiar?

Why Busyness is Actually Modern Laziness

Action addiction is an advanced sort of laziness. It keeps us busily occupied with tasks. The busier we keep ourselves, the more we avoid being confronted with questions of life and death. As we keep ourselves occupied with tasks, important or not, we avoid facing life. We keep a safe and comfortable distance to the issues that are sometimes hard to look at. Have we chosen the right career? Are we present enough with our children? Is our life purposeful?

It’s like climbing a ladder as fast as we can, only once we reach the top we realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

With all our activity we believe we get closer to something bigger. We might not know what it is, but we keep working at it. It´s like climbing a ladder as fast as we can, hoping to get to the top. And someday we get there. We reach the top in the form of a job promotion or a newly acquired house. But what’s the point of reaching the top of the ladder only to realize it’s leaning against the wrong wall?

Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time with people who made it to the top of the ladder. One CEO—who was not much different from the others I’ve met—has stuck in my mind. He had decades of action addiction on his curriculum vitae. He had made it to the top of an international insurance company. He had worked hard for years—hard enough to have suffered two strokes. But he was willing to take a beating to secure his retirement and family. Sadly, his health began to fail him and he wasn’t sure he’d make it to retirement age. And in the process of securing the future, he’d lost his family. Action addiction had kept him from noticing his family pulling further and further away.

This is all not to say activities are not important. Working, cooking, cleaning, and caring for our families and friends are mandatory for us all… But we can choose to write some space into our to-do lists.

The Dalai Lama was coming to town. More than 10,000 people were coming together to see him. Over 500 volunteers, dozens of security people, and masses of journalists had to be coordinated. The man behind it all, Lakha, was a little man in his late 70s and an old friend and study mate of the Dalai Lama.

We may have deadlines, projects, and activities, but we have the freedom to choose whether we become action addicts.

I arrived at the venue early, to meet friends and be there to greet the Dalai Lama. There was intense activity setting up security, managing the crowds, and taking care of the press. In the middle of it all Lakha was standing in his suit. I walked straight up to him and asked him the default question we all tend to ask each other when we meet. I have never asked anyone the question since then. “Hi, Lakha, are you busy?” Lakha turned to me, looked at me calmly and said, “There is lots of activity, but I am not busy.” His presence spoke louder than his words. Lakha was overseeing a massive project with numerous deadlines and details to manage. There was lots going on, but it did not get to him. He was not busy.

On that day I realized clearly that busyness is a choice. We may have deadlines, projects, and activities, but we have the freedom to choose whether we become action addicts and busy-lazy, or just observe the experience of many activities. It’s a choice. And the ability to make that choice comes from developing a clear mind, free of action addiction.

Nowadays we tend to all be busy, overburdened, and perhaps stressed. It is part of our identity. If we are busy we are important. If we are stressed, it’s because we are committed and working hard. It´s in the DNA of our modern societies. If we are not busy and stressed, we are not trying hard enough. Something is wrong with us. But Lakha showed a clear alternative; having many activities and being highly effective and productive, but maintaining mental clarity and calm—not giving in to action addiction. Not being existentially lazy.

There are good reasons to overcome action addiction and thereby better avoid busyness. In addition to keeping us from seeing the bigger picture, busyness kills the heart. In Chinese, the word “busy” consists of two syllables, one meaning heart, the other death. More explanation is not needed. The busier we get, the more energy flows to the head and away from the heart. The busier we get, the more we tend to distance ourselves from others and their emotions. Action addiction keeps us busy and away from asking why. And the less we ask, the further we get removed from purpose, meaning, and love. We become effective robots that achieve more. But more is very often much less. Because the heart is not in it.

Get More Done by Slowing Down

To avoid killing our hearts through busy action addiction, we must slow down before we speed up. We must live smart and work smart. Do the right things, not a lot of things. A great analogy to this is the cheetah.

You have likely watched animal movies and seen a cheetah hunt. It’s impressive. It’s the fastest land-living animal on the planet and reaches speeds faster than some highway limits, in seconds. Despite its amazing body, it does not just set off and sprint when it spots prey. Instead it slows down. Really slow. It crouches down and for minutes moves in slow motion while all muscle fibers in its body warm up. Then, when ready, everything explodes and in seconds it accelerates faster than a sports car and catches its meal.

The trick of the cheetah is to slow down to speed up, and we can learn from that in our pursuit of overcoming action addiction and busyness. Just as the cheetah doesn’t run around constantly trying to catch mice, we can learn to focus on the real important tasks and goals in life and at work–rather than doing things just for the sake of doing them.

When we slow down momentarily and let go of doing things, we allow the brain to let go of the immediate urge for dopamine and we can focus and choose our actions out of clarity and freedom, rather than impulses. That way we can better pursue the larger goals in life like kindness, happiness or whatever it may be. By slowing down, we can speed up.

Three Mindful Tips to Slow Down at Work

1. Take an Awareness Break

You can take a systematic approach to slowing down by implementing awareness breaks in your life. Awareness breaks are 45 second breaks performed once an hour. Awareness breaks are like a reset button. It helps you reset your mind, get out of wheel spinning, and increase your focus.

  1. Set a timer to notify you that it’s time to take a moment.
  2. When you get the notification, stop what you are doing, let go of thoughts and direct your attention to your breath.
  3. At the first breath cycle, relax your body and mind. At the second, focus your attention. At the third, ask yourself “What am I doing right now: Chasing mice or going after bigger prey?”

2. Halt Your Action Addiction

The consequence of action addiction is that we are constantly chasing short-term wins. We keep ourselves busy chasing details, thereby losing sight of larger goals. If you are reading this, and not really sure if it applies to you, here is a little test you can do:

  1. Next time you get to your office in the morning, just as you are about to get in action, sit down, and look out the window or at your computer screen.
  2. Don’t act. Don’t talk. Don’t solve a problem. Just sit. Do nothing. For three minutes.

If you find the test difficult, if you are challenged by the inactivity and get restless and experience an urge to be busy—you are experiencing some degree of action addiction.

3. Ask Yourself: Are You Choosing to Be Busy?

  1. Next time you feel busy, pause for a moment and contemplate: What’s keeping you busy? And is it worth it? Are there things on your plate you should let go? And is your mind inherently busy or just pretending to be?
  2. Let yourself contemplate these questions for a moment and be honest with yourself about the answers. There are no right answers.
This article also appeared in the October 2015 issue of Mindful magazine.