The cult of busyness: How being busy became a status symbol

In today's society, 'I'm busy' is equated with success. Bernd Opitz

There was a time when a person’s wealth was measured by their spare time. Extravagant trips, expensive pursuits and exclusive hobbies require time. After all, you need a good two weeks to dedicate to sailing your personal yacht to the Cayman Islands.

But today, the most successful people are perceived as the busiest, which leaves scant time for sailing to the Caribbean. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers from Columbia University, Harvard and Georgetown found through a series of experiments that the busier a person appeared, the more important they were deemed.

In one experiment, participants were asked to rate how they perceived “Jeff.” One written scenario depicted Jeff as working long hours and juggling the demands of a packed schedule, while the other painted him as a leisurely guy who doesn’t work.

“In general, we found that the busy person is perceived as high status, and interestingly, these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility,” the study researchers wrote in Harvard Business Review. “In other words, the more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”

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They deduced that this public perception is the result of a shift in the economy, which has become what they call “knowledge-intensive.” That is, people who display competence and ambition are perceived as being in greater demand (and short supply), therefore when they tell others that they’re busy and always working, it’s read as being highly sought after.

Some experts argue that the economic shift that led to this perception happened a long time ago, and well before we evolved into this intellect-based model.

“Historians have documented that after the Industrial Revolution, time suddenly became equated with money,” says Mary Waller, professor of organization studies at York University’s Schulich School of Business. “The more busy you were, the more value you had. It went beyond just a status symbol; it became economic. You increased your economic value if you could cram more work into an hour than someone else.”

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Even golf, that most leisurely of leisure activities actively pursued by upwardly mobile professionals, has been rejigged to accommodate increasing busyness. Waller points out that many golf courses have moved to nine-hole courses for people who feel that they don’t have time to play 18 holes.

“Bill Gates famously said that he wasn’t going to play golf anymore because when he thought about the amount of time he spent on 18 holes, he said he could spend that same time doing good with a charitable initiative,” Waller says.

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While it’s admirable of Gates to use his leisure time for more altruistic pursuits, studies have shown that busyness, and by extension multitasking, is rarely an indication of productivity. David Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, found that even brief mental blocks that happen when people switch tasks can cost 40 per cent of a person’s productive time.

“People who are time urgent see time as the enemy and set themselves in opposition to it. These are the people you see multitasking,” Waller says. “But the relationship between multitasking and accuracy is negative. The more you do, the less accurate you’re going to be.”

Interestingly, the authors of the busyness study wanted to look at the cultural implications of their findings by comparing the responses they received from American participants to Italian reactions. Not surprisingly, the results were very different.

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“We showed Americans and Italians a vignette in which we describe a person who is either working all the time or is conducting a leisurely lifestyle, and they came to different conclusions about status,” study co-author Silvia Bellezza said to The Atlantic. “The Italians, as soon as you tell them that someone is not working as much, they immediately think the person is rich. But in the U.S., they think, ‘Oh, this person probably cannot work. There must be something wrong, and they’re going to go back to work as soon as they can.'”

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While Bellezza is quick to point out that the Italian (and largely Mediterranean) model of taking four or more consecutive weeks of vacation doesn’t really work either — “[Italy is] basically paralyzed for two months” — she says the American model is just as unhealthy.

“Mindful engagement in leisure is the type of thing that renews and restores us, and it has a positive effect on our health,” Waller says. “We’re really doing a trip on ourselves by feeling guilty about downtime, but we have to get past those feelings to restore our mental and physical health.”

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And when you consider that overworking can lead to health issues like impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory and heart disease, busyness seems like more of a hazard than anything else.

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