As temperatures begin to decline and suntans fade, it’s clear that the post-holiday period is upon us. Social media will no longer glisten with taunting images of other people’s rosé, news coverage has forsaken its summery frivolity and the annual domestic dispute on when to fire up the central heating is but days away.

Another challenge of back to work time is dealing with the work to which you have come back (never less, usually more than pre-vacation, despite your very clear instructions) combined with the ramping up of expectation and endeavour which seems to beset organisations at this time of year. Suddenly, the end of the fiscal is closer than the beginning or has appeared ominously over the horizon. There is much to do and so little time.

No part of this September surge is helped by the mushrooming addiction, particularly in the workplace, to busyness. Everyone is busy; everyone, that is, who has a life worth living. The answer to ‘how are you?’ is no longer ‘fine’ (or ‘good’ – ugh! – oops, showing my age) but ‘busy, crazy busy’. Busyness is the new badge of honour, a mark of superior status, a source of competitive advantage.

There are now books about busyness and the BBC has just repeated last year’s five part series on Radio 4, Oliver Burkeman is busy, which explores the phenomenon. In conversations with relevant commentators like writer Maria Popova, business psychologist Tony Crabbe and Jonathan Gershuny from the Centre for Time Use Research at the University of Oxford, Burkeman exposes some interesting findings about our boundless love for a crammed schedule.

Overall, despite changes in levels of paid versus unpaid work and of work undertaken by women versus men, research indicates that we are in fact no busier than we used to be. We erroneously believe that we are and, interestingly, the people who think they are the busiest simply aren’t. So what’s going on? Surely life in 2017 is busier than ever before? Tony Crabbe, author of Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much, asserts that busyness is a choice and that the increasing number of available activities needs to be separated from how we elect to spend our time.

In short, we are choosing to overwhelm ourselves because, in the modern era, busyness makes us feel that, as human beings, we matter. And, of course, it’s not always work that is to blame. We have decided to apply productivity measures to our leisure activities too. No longer can we enjoy a meal without turning this experience into a project. A meditation class has become part of a self-improvement plan. We have attached levels of activity, in a world without limits, to the belief that we can do it all. Busyness has become a way of life. Life has become a To Do list.

Let’s be clear, given what’s happening around the world, it is a luxury to be in a position to complain about being busy but there can be damaging consequences, particularly in the workplace, of not taking a pause, of not giving our brains a rest.

Burkeman’s programmes remind us of some basic facts about ourselves. The brain is not a machine. It is good at dealing with stress in short bursts but needs to be allowed to recover. Optimal performance requires sequences of ‘think and reflect’ which are compromised by the demands of ‘always on’. Indeed, there is an important mental state of non-thinking, the so-called default network, which acts as the brain’s digestive system and understandably influences cognitive ability. The more we cram, the more time pressure we create, the worse we are, ironically, at time management. We become stressed, less resourceful and make bad decisions. Further, given the natural limits of our mental bandwidth, multi-tasking is bad for the brain. There is a cost associated with switching between tasks, especially when some are left incomplete for a period of time.

Trying to do too much, therefore, may make us feel important but we end up doing less and doing it worse. Chillingly, also, to paraphrase Maria Popova, we risk showing up for our lives while being absent from them.

What can we do to fight the busyness epidemic? Cast your mind back to some of those more relaxed moments from the summer holiday. Hold that thought and consider the following:

  • Make some time to think. If gaps in your calendar freak you out, fix meetings with yourself
  • Create some space for your teams to think together. Counsel time is invaluable and can help you own your future
  • Focus on doing well what really matters rather than worrying about the idea of doing less. Loosen the reins on lower priority tasks
  • Don’t check emails just before important meetings. This may harm your preparation and diminish your contribution
  • Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself with some free time. You are not defined by how busy you are. Periods of idleness are not self-indulgent. They serve a useful purpose
  • Avoid accepting linear tasks because they are quantifiable and therefore feed the To Do list addiction. Less calculable reflection may be more important
  • Define a sensible end point for your day, get there and then stop

I will leave the final thought to Oliver Burkeman. “Your best shot at changing the world, or even just improving your own world a little bit, might be through doing nothing in particular.”