The Allure of Busyness

Advertisements often reflect societal values.

Amtrak tells commuters to “stay productive” with its free Wi-Fi service. 5-hour ENERGY promises to “help you get through your busy day.” Microsoft claims that its products “do more. Just like you.”

We’ve been conditioned to believe that success demands constant activity. In today’s hyper-connected global market, we must keep moving to get ahead—or at least not fall behind. Success never sleeps.

Busyness ≠ Productivity
Competition and scarcity drive us to stay busy.

Individuals and organizations alike face this pressure. Businesses must be better, faster, and cheaper than competitors to win market share. Employees must outperform coworkers to earn promotions. Even maintaining the status quo gradually involves doing more. So we work longer days full of activity.

Duration of time, however, is a poor proxy for productivity. Would extending an 8-hour workday to 10 hours increase productivity by 25%? Not necessarily. Remember: Work expands to fill the time allotted.

Busyness is equally flawed a metric of productivity. We may do much while accomplishing little. When we mistake motion for progress, we divert attention from issues that matter. Even worse, measuring the wrong factors (often process measures) may promote unwanted behaviors. For example, emphasizing the number of sales demos conducted—more than closing ratio—may burn through sales leads.

A Question of Image
But often it’s not even about productivity.

Our culture rewards appearing busy. Employees who stay late are viewed as dedicated. Those whose calendars are booked solid are seen as important. We boast in being busy, even despite fruitlessness. How often I’ve heard coworkers declare: “I have so many meetings today, I can’t get anything done!”

Busyness feeds our self-esteem. First, it satisfies our desire to be needed by signaling that our time is in demand. There’s nothing wrong with this per se. Job security and career advancement require delivering value. Yet we must beware of letting image management dictate our identity. If our significance comes from social reinforcement, we can never be satiated. We must keep performing to garner applause.

Secondly, busyness provides the illusion of progress. We want to believe that our efforts will bear fruit. Even when we make little headway, we convince ourselves that breakthrough is imminent—if only we keep at it. But not all activities are equal. If we seek to create lasting impact, we must ask questions of effectiveness before efficiency, refuse the comfort of busyness, and strive for true measures of success.

As the “archenemy of spiritual authenticity,” busyness distracts us from our identity and purpose. It focuses our attention on ourselves before others and on short-term gain, rather than long-term mission. Operating out of such insecurity will prove detrimental to both individuals and organizations.

So let us reject the false promises of busyness. This will not be easy; nor will it be a one-time decision. We must continue to parry the rat race mentality from regaining a foothold. The countercultural response isn’t idleness. Rather, we will accomplish more by being mindful of our time and motivations.