“Too busy” and other personal tipping points

by Kristin on February 10, 2011

in Culture, ideas & paradigms

Photo by cho45

I am fascinated with the idea of tipping points. Ever since reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book on that subject a couple years ago, my mind has taken off and run with the idea—possibly in ways that aren’t entirely in line with Gladwell’s original intent. My tipping points may not be “social epidemics,” the focus of Gladwell’s book, but I’m sure they’re personal inflictions many of us can relate to.

Here are the types of places my mind goes:

- When does a satisfying amount of indulgence tip into gluttony?

- At what moment does alone become lonely?

- When does a good friend become a best friend?

- What causes risk-taking to shift from exciting to frightening?

- And my current obsession: When does “busy” cease to be invigorating and instead become paralyzing?

When “nice-busy” becomes “evil-busy”

You may have guessed it: I’m feeling overwhelmed right now. In general, I love being busy. Throughout my life, I’ve found that the busier I am, the more energized and productive I am. In high school, I was most on top of my homework and got my best grades during tennis season, when my schedule was most packed. As a freelance writer, I tend to feel aimless and all floaty and day-dreamy when my project load is light, but when things pick up a bit I shift into high gear and can get an amazing amount done in a day. There seems to be some ideal formula: just the right number of scheduled meetings, interspersed with good blocks of work time.

Of course, most days that formula is elusive, and the “busier=more productive” equation only proofs out to a point. I guess that’s the tipping point—that moment when being comfortably busy suddenly spins out of control, and I’m left staring straight ahead, my hands over my ears, singing la-la-la-la in hopes that my circumstances will miraculously become more manageable.

Turning a perfect storm into a good storm

Well, my situation isn’t quite that bad, but it isn’t fun, either. I’m determined to get to the bottom of this problem, because I’m going to be far too busy these next several months to deal with any la-la-la moments. So what exactly causes the tipping? What confluence of events are capable of spinning into a perfect storm, and what personal/emotional atmosphere makes me more vulnerable and at risk?

Gladwell looks at the question from an epidemiological approach. Here’s how he explains the phrase in a Q&A on his website:

The word “Tipping Point”, for example, comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards.

When does my “busy virus” reach critical mass, and become more than my immune system can fight? Does it have more to do with my own particular thresholds—in other words, is my threshold set, out of my control—or with my coping mechanisms and ability to find and employ the right tools?

I know, I’m asking a lot of questions rather than providing answers. All I know is I want to find that happy-busy place, where my mind and energy levels are buzzing along, working at full capacity, and leaving me feeling satisfied at the end of the day, not stressed.

Gladwell thinks people are capable of starting “‘positive’ epidemics of their own,” using the same theories that tip situations in the wrong direction to tip things in the right direction. Have you seen that work in your own life, or is it all about prevention?

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  • http://keepgoingyoufool.blogspot.com Jane

    I always know when I’m too busy. The most egregious sign is the piling up of mail and neglected papers on my desk as I concentrate on the projects in front of me.

    I’ve realized that I need quite a bit of less-busy time to be really productive. I need to be able to tackle one major thing a day. Sometimes that feels a bit pathetic, but it’s the truth.

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  • http://salvagedfaith.blogspot.com Katie Z.

    *sigh* I’m at the “too busy” point right now, too. It’s one of those weeks where I knew I would need time to catch up from a week out of the office, and now there are three funerals and other things added onto the rest of the things to catch up on. I agree with Jane – when you can no longer see your desk and the new mail is piled up and not opened, it’s past that tipping point. Another indication that I’m “too busy” is that I haven’t even had time to catch up on my television shows – which is a necessary bit of self-care in my life.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Jane, that’s not pathetic at all! That’s simply a sign of knowing yourself and honoring who you are and how you function best. To ignore what you know about yourself would be the pathetic thing.

    Katie Z., I was just out of town, too, for a couple of days of meetings. The trip was a good thing, but just getting ready for it and going was enough to make me feel a week behind on everything else that needs doing. And yes—self-care is important! I hope you’re able to make time for it soon.

  • http://www.listenfeelbreathe.com.au David | Listen Feel Breathe

    That’s an interesting concept Kristin. I wonder where in my life tipping points reveal themselves.

    I know one was today when my frustration got the better of me. I like to be busy because I have always worked more efficiently and productively when the pressure is on. I have always left things to the last minute and then hit things with full energy and effort to accomplish short term goals. But lately I find that putting myself into these situations is causing physical pain and the ability to manage this stress seems to have disappeared. This is one of the reasons why I am trying to simplify my lifestyle and manage my time better.

    So back to today. I let my frustration get the better of me. It was busy in the shop and I felt myself falling behind. Customers were waiting and then walking out. The phones wouldn’t stop ringing and I was by myself. I let out a big loud sigh and started grumbling.

    So what was the tipping point between productive “under pressure” work and the feeling of frustration breaking through my skin. I think it all comes down to my own response. Despite external pressures and deadlines, the problem really is how I choose to respond in each situation. This is the one thing that I actually have control over.

    I think that a better approach for me when this tipping point was reached, would have been to stop, breathe, and realise that I can choose how I respond. Then with a clearer mind I can continue to work at my peak level.

  • Lisa

    A few years ago I decided to stop answering “how are you” with “I’m so stressed” when I did so for what turned out to be the last time and a friend said “you always say that.” I suspect it was really a throw-away remark from her but somehow it caught me and I realized that wasn’t the image I wanted to have of myself – or to present to others.

    These days you will hear me say “I do one thing and then I do the next thing” whenever people comment on how busy I am. I’m not always on top of everything – and I am too busy right now due to some decisions I made without really considering the resulting workload (so I take responsibility) – but I’m no longer spending my energy being upset with myself over it.

    I’m reading “The Four-Hour Work Week” right now. I don’t like the deception that the author seems to advocate relative to the relationship on has with their supervisor but there are some thought provoking statements causing reflection on how I spend my time. I suspect I am fall into the trap of “work for work sake” and breaking some of those patterns will mean re-gaining the freedom to use my time how I want.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    David, frustration is definitely one of those things that sort of erupts all of a sudden, when it reaches a certain point. I guess that’s where the phrase “the straw that broke the camel’s back” comes in. It sounds like your level of self-awareness is high, though, which is the first step to doing what you self-prescribed: “stop, breathe, and realise that I can choose how I respond.” I need to remember those things, too.

    Lisa, I know what you mean! I was beginning to feel like a broken record saying “I’m so busy” every time people asked how I’ve been, so I’ve tried to change my response, too. The problem is, the alternative always feels a bit like a ruse. I guess what we’re faced with is a two-fold challenge: on one level, we want to present a self-image we feel good about, and to do that, we should be trying to live a life we feel good about (like making smarter choices about how we spend our time, as you suggested). I’ve been curious about that book—maybe I’ll check it out.

  • Lisa

    It is a good point about being honest. Maybe I should clarify a bit more. First, I have changed how I view things so it is true that generally speaking Im not stressed about the busyness (though there is an interesting observation I have here as well … People act like there is something wrong with you if you don’t claim super-stressedness. Ironically I have been under a lot of pressure to present myself as stressed!)… But, secondly, there are all sorts of things going on in my Life so even if I was stressed that doesn’t have to be what I share. There are lots of things I don’t say. So, I just choose something else that is more positive and energy-creating for me. Something that has been fun, interesting, intriguing, etc.

    And, be happy to loan you the book when I finish it … ;)

  • http://www.thestubbornservant.com Nicole

    Kristin, I love this post. I feel the same…I love being busy but can easily get to the point of over-emotional and over-whelmed, which turns me into an evil mother and a witchy wife. Not good. What I’m wondering is if this is where Sabbath comes in. I think if I actually took an entire day per week to let the to-do list rest, I think I’d be more productive overall. I’ve done it in the past, and I think it’s time to reinstitute that in my life. It’s just hard to find, particularly since I work in the church AND have kids–Sunday is a busy workday and every day I have to be a mom. I loved Keri Wyatt Kent’s book called “Rest” on the idea of Sabbath-keeping. Really helpful.