Few facts about modern life seem more indisputable than how busy everyone seems to be. Across the industrialised world, large numbers of survey respondents tell researchers they’re overburdened with work, at the expense of time with family and friends. And it’s possible that the most overwhelmed people weren’t even asked how they felt: according to one ingenious 2014 study, one major reason people decline to take part in surveys is… that they feel too busy.
The total amounts of work are pretty much exactly the same – Jonathan Gershuny, Oxford University
You might assume the explanation was straightforward: we feel so much busier these days because we’ve got so much more to do. But you’d be wrong. The total time people are working – whether paid or otherwise – has not increased in Europe or North America in recent decades. Modern parents who worry they’re spending insufficient time with their children spend significantly more of it than those in generations past. “The headline changes over the last 50 years are that women do a whole lot less unpaid work, and a whole lot more paid work, and men do quite a bit less paid work, and a whole lot more unpaid work,” says Jonathan Gershuny, of the Centre for Time Use Research at Oxford University. But “the total amounts of work are pretty much exactly the same.” What’s more, the data also shows that the people who say they’re the busiest generally aren’t.
What’s going on? Part of the answer is simple economics. As economies grow, and the incomes of the better-off have risen over time, time has literally become more valuable: any given hour is worth more, so we experience more pressure to squeeze in more work. But it’s also a result of the kind of work in which many of us are engaged. In former eras, dominated by farming or manufacturing, labour could certainly be physically punishing – but it obeyed certain limits. You can’t harvest the crops before they’re ready; you can’t make more physical products than the available material allows.
But in the era of what management consultant Peter Drucker called “knowledge work”, that’s changed. We live in an “infinite world”, says Tony Crabbe, author of the book Busy: How to Thrive in a World of Too Much. There are always more incoming emails, more meetings, more things to read, more ideas to follow up – and digital mobile technology means you can easily crank through a few more to-do list items at home, or on holiday, or at the gym. The result, inevitably, is feeling overwhelmed: we’re each finite human beings, with finite energy and abilities, attempting to get through an infinite amount. We feel a social pressure to “do it all”, at work and at home, but that’s not just really difficult; it’s a mathematical impossibility.
The ironic consequence of the ‘busy feeling’ is that we handle our to-do lists less well than if we weren’t so rushed
With that kind of time pressure weighing us down, it’s hardly surprising that we live with one eye on the clock. But psychological research demonstrates that this kind of time-awareness actually leads to worse performance (not to mention reduced levels of compassion). So the ironic consequence of the “busy feeling” is that we handle our to-do lists less well than if we weren’t so rushed. The economist Sendhil Mullainathan and the behavioural scientist Eldar Shafir describe this as a problem of “cognitive bandwidth”: feelings of scarcity, whether money or time, prey on the mind, thereby impairing decision-making. When you’re busy, you’re more likely to make poor time-management choices – taking on commitments you can’t handle, or prioritising trifling tasks over crucial ones. A vicious spiral kicks in: your feelings of busyness leave you even busier than before.
Arguably worst of all, this mindset spreads to infect our leisure time – so that even when life finally does permit an hour or two for recuperation, we end up feeling like that ought to be spent “productively”, too. “The most pernicious thing [is] this tendency we have to apply productivity to realms of life that should, by their very nature, be devoid of that criterion,” argues Maria Popova, who runs the popular ideas blog Brain Pickings. She watched it happen with one of her own hobbies: photography. “In my past life, I walked around everywhere with a professional camera,” she says. “But now the sharing” – the idea that the reason for taking photos is to post them on Facebook or Instagram – “has become its own burden.”
If there’s a solution to the busyness epidemic, other than the universal enforcement of a 21-hour workweek – it may lie in clearly perceiving just how irrational our attitudes have become. Historically, the ultimate symbol of wealth, achievement and social superiority was the freedom not to work: the true badge of honour, as the 19th Century economist Thorstein Veblen put it, was leisure. Now, it’s busyness that has become the indicator of high status. “The best-off in our society are often very busy, and have to be,” says Gershuny. “You ask me, am I busy, and I tell you: ‘Yes, of course I’m busy – because I’m an important person!’”
Busyness has become the indicator of high status
To see how absurd it is to value sheer activity in this manner, consider a story told by the behavioural economist Dan Ariely, about a locksmith he once met. Early in his career, the locksmith “was just not that good at it: it would take him a really long time to open the door, and he would often break the lock,” Ariely says. Still, people were happy to pay his fee and throw in a tip. As he got better and faster, though, they complained about the fee, and stopped tipping. You’d think they would value regaining access to their house or car more swiftly. But what they really wanted was to see the locksmith putting in the time and effort – even if it meant a longer wait.
Too often, we take a similar attitude not only to other people, but ourselves: we measure our worth not by the results we achieve, but by how much of our time we spend doing. We live frenetic lives, at least in part, because it makes us feel good about ourselves. To put it mildly, this makes no sense. Perhaps we’d pause long enough to realise that – if we weren’t so damn busy.
This article is based on the BBC Radio 4 series Oliver Burkeman is Busy.
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