The world is in a mad rush. Everybody wants everything yesterday. Welcome to the state of agitation, the precursor to stress. It’s a bad neighbourhood, and not one you should care to hang around in.  

IF YOU’VE ever been stuck in traffic when you’re running late for a meeting—and presuming you’re not a Zen monk—you’ll recognise the state of agitation. It’s that state when you’re pushing hard against life to make things happen within a certain time, or in a certain way, and life is having none of it. Sound familiar? Today’s corporate world is full of it, and it leads to stress. And technology, which was supposed to help, has only made it worse.

Now consider Google Maps or Waze (and this is to continue the analogy, it’s not a direct example). They can both suggest alternate routes to avoid heavy traffic. However, they don’t have a danger meter and so they don’t offer you an alternative to avoid those dodgy parts of town. Recently, Waze wanted to take me through Hillbrow in Johannesburg, perhaps one of the most dangerous urban centres on earth, on my way to a client meeting in the city centre. I said uh-uh.

Finding yourself in a bad neighbourhood

Now, imagine if you were stuck in traffic in a dangerous part of town. You’d probably not start hooting at anybody who gets in your way. Conversely, you’ll do your best to not draw attention to yourself. You’ll be more quietly agitated while you try to get out of there as quickly as possible. When you do, you’re very likely to tell someone about your experience as a way of dealing with it.

The state of agitation, like the state of ennui—and downtown Johannesburg—is a bad neighbourhood. You don’t want to stay there. You want to get out of them all as quickly as possible. In fact, if you can, you want to say uh-uh to going there in the first place.

In the first article in this series, I introduced the matrix of five motivational states that I’ve identified through my work as a high-performance life and executive coach. These states are:

  • Agitation (using force, pushing too hard)
  • Flow (enjoyment, absorption, the loss of time)
  • Animation (positive action towards a goal)
  • Rest (active relaxation, recovery)
  • Ennui (boredom, flatness, resistance)

(You can read about these in more detail by following this link.)

Agitation, stress—and busyness

In the first few articles in this series, you saw that if you spend too much time in the state of rest, you drop down into the flat state of ennui. Too much time in ennui, and you struggle to get going; you can even become depressed. Similarly, if you spend too much time in the state of agitation, you’ll develop the symptoms of stress.

In modern life—and in the modern corporate workspace in particular—the performance and delivery expectations are very high. Everybody wants everything yesterday. The whole world is in a mad rush. As a result, everybody is consistently, if not constantly, in a state of agitation, which, as mentioned, is the precursor to stress. I’ve encountered many project managers, in particular, who’ve become burnt out by the unrealistic expectations placed on them. No wonder that stress is so prevalent and employee wellness has become an increasingly important area of focus.

Perhaps it’s time to set a new standard, one where NOT being hectic all the time is an indicator of dedication, efficiency, smartness, and living the company’s values.

An important consequence of this phenomenon is what a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article called the “busyness paradox”. Essentially, your “attention and ability to focus narrows”—what behavioural researchers call “tunnelling”. You tend to focus on the “most immediate, and often low value”, tasks right in front of you. Other research has shown that you actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state. One researcher quoted in the article calls this a “firefighting state of time pressure”.

Agitation and stressit’s in the culture

Whenever I get to this point during any of my corporate talks, the question always comes up about organizational culture. What choice do you have, but to be in the state of agitation, when the culture demands so much of you? What can you do to manage yourself? This is an obvious and valid question. The problem does exist at an organizational level and in fact it extends beyond any single corporate culture. The research referred to in the aforementioned HBR article found that while every organization and person interviewed espoused “work-life balance” as a core value, they all, without exception, struggled to live that value.

The result, at an organizational level, is that you don’t make time to focus on long-term goals. You also tend to drop important parts of your process, like project review meetings; in other words, you don’t deal with the causes of the firefighting, and therefore you don’t identify and fix things that would avert future firefighting. It becomes a self-reinforcing spiral.

How to extract yourself from the culture of agitation

This series is more focused on the individual, and self-management, so let’s look at how you as an individual can manage yourself when you recognise that you’re in the state of agitation. Perhaps the first step is to investigate your relationship to the state of agitation.

As the HBR article states, “Many workers very publicly wear this overworked [state] like a badge of honour.” Ask yourself: Am I caught in that trap, which is really not about caring for me, but about how everyone sees me? If your answer to that question is yes, you’re like that person caught in traffic in a bad neighbourhood: silently agitated and just bursting to escape. Now ask yourself: Is that how I choose to spend my working life?

Escaping the bad neighbourhood

Perhaps it’s time to set a new standard, one where NOT being hectic all the time is an indicator of dedication, efficiency, smartness, and living the company’s values. So, in other words, the starting point for getting out of the state of agitation and thereby reducing stress in the world as we find it today is in fact about challenging social norms.

Here are some questions you can throw out there when you’re doing this: Shouldn’t work be an opportunity for growth? Isn’t work supposed to be where we can express our passions and consistently enter and recreate the flow state? In your dreams, I hear most people say when I suggest that. However, if you do manage to say these things, you’ll be like that person who’s escaped the bad neighbourhood and is telling their story as a warning to the world.

Mindfully check your need to control

When you’ve past that hurdle—or perhaps even while you’re still dealing with it—you might want to try out a little mindfulness practice. That means becoming present and evaluating your own relationship to your chosen activities. Are you pushing too hard to make things happen within a certain time, or in a certain way? If so, what can you let go of trying to control? Conversely, what CAN you control? If you can bring your attention completely to that one thing—that one thing at a time—that you can control right now, you reactivate the conditions for the flow state. You’ll find, firstly, that your performance improves and, secondly, that some of those uncontrollables get taken care of—other people step in to do them, or something happens where they’re no longer needed.

So, the trick to exiting the state of agitation is to—wait for it!—care less. Many people are horrified to hear this. Of course, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care at all.

In my view, German philosopher Eckhart Tolle, who wrote The Power Of Now, hits the nail on the head when he says in his later book, A New Earth: “When you want to arrive at your goal more than you want to be doing what you are doing you become stressed.” Indeed, this is your indicator that you’re in the agitated state: that you’re wanting to get finished, or get to the next thing, more than you want to be doing what you’re doing right now. When you find yourself doing that, you can know that you’re on the road to stress.

Manage your perceptions

Another way to view this is through the lens of the research into the flow state. According to Mihály Csikszentmihalyi, you lose the flow state when the perceived challenge level rises too high relative to the perceived skill level. When that happens, anxiety is likely to arise.

You usually see this in sporting competitions, when the one player or team starts to lose ground. Their ability to regain their performance will depend on their perceived ability relative to the other player or team, who represents the perceived challenge. If that perception doesn’t get corrected, the player or team who is chasing the game will move into the state of agitation; they’ll try too hard, and be more likely to drop the ball, or force and miss the shot, and thereby bring about the very result that they were hoping to avoid.

Naturally, if you find yourself in that state, you want to sit back a bit. Trust yourself. Trust the process. Trust life a little more. And, perhaps, at the same time, recognise that if this thing doesn’t happen exactly the way you want it to, it won’t be the end of the world. There’s no need—and it wouldn’t help anyway—to stress.

Manage your caring attention (or, how to stress less)

So, always, the trick to exiting the state of agitation is to—wait for it!—care less. Many people are horrified to hear this. Of course, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t care at all. It just means you should drop back into caring, right now, only about the things—or, to be precise, the one thing—that you can control.

Once again, that’s said tongue-in-cheek. Perhaps the better phrase would be to stress less. Yes, you still care about everything else, and yet you choose to focus your attention on the one thing you can control right now. If you can create this as a habit of mind, you will improve not only your performance, but your results and your experience of life.

After all, who wants to live their whole life in a bad neighbourhood?


neil bierbaum author speaker coach lunchtime talks stressFor more information and/or coaching on The Five Motivational States try any one of the following options:

  1. Read any one of the books in my Personal Effectiveness series, available in paperback and eBook formats. Details at this link.
  2. Sign up (or sign your people up) for an online self-coaching course at this link.
  3. Enquire about talks, workshops and one-on-one executive coaching at this link.