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The fable of the hare and the tortoise and the wisdom of ‘slow and steady wins the race’ holds some deeper truths for those of us who work in professional services.

Perhaps the real reason the hare lost the race was that it was suffering from ‘hurry sickness’ – much like many of us rush through the day, only to find that we didn’t get done half of what we planned to accomplish.

Matthew Kelly, the author of the book The Long View, makes the point that “we tend to overestimate what we can do in a day and underestimate what we can do in a month; overestimate what we can do in a year, and underestimate what we can accomplish in a decade”. As Hofstadter’s Law states: ‘It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.’

It’s normal for professional services and other business leaders to have high expectations. We seem to think that success is achieved by running towards it. We believe that if we can cram just a bit more into our day, we’ll be closer to realising our goals and ambitions – significance will finally be within our grasp.

However, your brain has a very different perspective.

The moment you put yourself under pressure by cramming too many tasks into one day – when you know deep down you have no hope of accomplishing them all – and start moving as fast as you can, your brain releases the stress hormone cortisol. 

Beneficial for many things, like alertness, cortisol is best in moderation. Prolonged cortisol levels, which are what you get if you keep rushing through the day, can cause anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, difficulty sleeping, weight gain, and, significantly, memory and concentration problems. The faster you go, and the more you try to get done, the less you accomplish.

It’s no wonder that the media frequently publish headlines like, ‘Mid-career burnout is real’ and ‘Professional services face losing junior staff to burnout’.

Locked in ‘overstimulation mode’, you quickly get tired and irritable. Some call it ‘hurry sickness’. Addressing hurry sickness is less about prioritising tasks better, automating certain work functions and learning to say no – your typical time management tools – and more about cultivating a greater sense of self-awareness.

Indeed, adding 20 or 30 percent more time to each task – sort of like a time markup – will mean you have fewer tasks for the day. It will slow you down and give you a better chance of completing your list, but old habits quickly re-assert themselves. The answer is to introduce new habits that encourage you to slow down and take stock. 

For example, a lunchtime walk for 30 minutes as a scheduled, daily appointment, or even a 20-minute nana nap early in the afternoon can help refresh and re-energise you for a stronger finish. If the idea of walking or napping is anathema for you, consider pacing your day more evenly. A good tool for this is The Pomodoro Technique.

Invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, the Pomodoro Technique uses a kitchen timer to pace your day better (there are also dozens of apps you can download). 

Essentially the timer breaks your day down into 25-minute intervals separated by short breaks that grow in length as your day goes on. For example, the first break is five minutes long. After four pomodoros, you take a break for 15-30 minutes and then reset. 

Pace your day, take time to rest and cultivate self-awareness because to work smarter, you need time to stop and think.