This is the first post in a 3-part series. You can jump to the next two posts here:
- Busyness 201: A Brief History of Work & BUSY in America
- Busyness 301: The Future of BUSY, Work & Leisure
It wasn’t too long ago that keeping up with the Joneses was all about things — the big house, sports car, and designer clothing.
Don’t get me wrong, materialism and lifestyle inflation are still all around us. But, things are being challenged by something “new” — time.
I personally lived through extreme busyness and long work hours at my last job. While I tried to diagnose the reason behind the busyness in real-time, I don’t think I ever really found the root cause. Months after leaving that job, this curiosity led me down a deep path to better understand why we are so busy today.
If you’ve spent any time on this site, you may have read the 3-part series on slow living. Consider this 3-part series on busyness a prequel to the slow living series.
After all, a how-to guide about slow living is only going to be effective if we all understand the why-to around busyness. So, as usual, I went deep into research and reading in an attempt to understand the past, present, and future of busyness and exactly why we are so busy — or at least feel we are so busy — in the modern world today.
An Introduction to Busyness (not that you really need one…)
You may have heard of some of the following terms: time-starved, time-poor, time scarcity, time poverty, time famine, time pressure, leisure gap, cult of busyness, harried, overwork culture, and overscheduled.
We feel like we’re “pressed for time,” that there’s “not enough time in the day,” and that we are “running out of time.”
But, our amount of time hasn’t changed. We still get 24 hours each day. Many modern conveniences (e.g. washer/dryer, dishwasher, etc) have significantly shaved off hours of weekly household chores. And, as we’ll see later, the average amount of time we spend working each week hasn’t increased in decades (if you’re surprised, I was too).
So, what’s really going on? Are we actually busier than ever before? Or, do we just feel busier? Has our relationship with time changed?
I know what it’s like to be and feel busy. What I didn’t initially realize in the midst of my busy life was that there can be several factors at play to cause busyness. Based on my research, I’ve come up with seven hypotheses…
7 Hypotheses for Why we are So Busy Today
- Busyness as a badge of honor and trendy status symbol — or the glorification of busy — to show our importance, value, or self-worth in our fast-paced society
- Busyness as job security — an outward sign of productivity and company loyalty
- Busyness as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) — spending is shifting from buying things (“have it all”) to experiences (“do it all”), packing our calendars (and social media feeds with the “highlight reel of life”)
- Busyness as a byproduct of the digital age — our 24/7 connected culture is blurring the line between life and work; promoting multitasking and never turning “off”
- Busyness as a time filler — in the age of abundance of choice, we have infinite ways to fill time (online and off) instead of leaving idle moments as restorative white space
- Busyness as necessity — working multiple jobs to make ends meet while also caring for children at home
- Busyness as escapism — from idleness and slowing down to face the tough questions in life (e.g. Maybe past emotional pain or deep questions like, “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is my purpose?”)
I believe all of these hypotheses are correct to some extent. Depending on your own unique experiences, a couple may resonate with you more than others.
My personal poison of busyness was a cocktail of #2, #4, #5, and a dash of #1. How about you? Let me know your busyness cocktail in the comments.
For me, I’ve always wanted to do my best work. And, in the past, I’ve been completely willing to sacrifice my life to do my best work. I put in crazy hours at work because I was a workaholic who was afraid to let things go and not do my best work for fear of failure or disappointment. But, at the same time, I was completely against busyness and trying to stop the madness. So, I participated in the busyness culture, but I was also a voice against it. Quite the dichotomy.
A Deeper Look into each Busyness Hypothesis
What’s really going on when you study the published research and trends over time? Are some of these hypotheses truer than others?
Reading through the research was fascinating and eye-opening. My hope is to give you the highlights so you can become aware of busyness, understand the root causes, and make changes for the better in your own life.
“The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” — Lily Tomlin
I’m kicking things off with this hypothesis because it’s actually backed by research that I previously summarized in the following two posts:
- Why Busyness is the Current Status Symbol, According to Research
- “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol” (Research Summary)
The big research takeaway is: “A busy and overworked lifestyle, rather than a leisurely lifestyle, has become an aspirational status symbol in America.”
This research has been covered in some big publications with supporting context:
- “As we compete to be productive, busyness is as much a status symbol as anything else.” — Johns Hopkins¹
- “So if leisureliness was once a badge of honour among the well-off of the 19th century…then busyness—and even stressful feelings of time scarcity—has become that badge now.” — The Economist²
- “In our rush to make more money and to have the American Dream as it’s been defined to us, we ended up crowding out our opportunity to have more time. Any social system wants to maintain itself—whether it’s a religion or an economic system—and under corporate capitalism, we’re required to maintain certain beliefs. It’s important to work hard, to demonstrate success, to make money. Not only is there a lack of laws that support vacation and family leave, but there’s a continual message encouraging people to work hard and spend more. We internalize those messages, and busyness becomes a badge of honor.” — Johns Hopkins¹
- “What has changed so dramatically in one century? We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.” — Harvard Business Review³
- “Individualistic cultures, which emphasise achievement over affiliation, help cultivate this time-is-money mindset…When people see their time in terms of money, they often grow stingy with the former to maximise the latter.” — The Economist²
- “‘In America the consequences of not being at the top are so dramatic that the rat race is exacerbated,’ says Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize-winning economist. ‘In a winner-takes-all society you would expect this time crunch.'” — The Economist²
When you think about it, this probably isn’t too shocking to you. But, it goes even deeper when you look at our attitude toward work in the U.S. and how it’s a big part of our perceived identity:
- “In America, we are defined by what we do. Our careers. What we produce. It’s the first question asked at parties, and often the first tidbit of information we share with strangers. The implication is that if I am not busy doing something, I am somehow less than. Not worthy. Or at least worth less than those who are producing something…So I fill my Facebook feed and my calendar with self-important busyness to avoid just being.” — Huffington Post4
- “In modern society, people not only want to be engaged, they want to be viewed as productive, so we don’t just engage ourselves in conversations, puzzles, or hobbies, but rather in work and activities that have a goal…That cultural orientation arises from a belief that what you accomplish is a signal of your value.” — SELF5
“Just because you’re doing a lot more doesn’t mean you’re getting a lot more done. Don’t confuse movement with progress.” — Denzel Washington
Is work today too subjective? In the case of knowledge work, I would say it is. In lieu of objective measurement, perception unfortunately becomes reality.
- “Because knowledge workers have few metrics for output, the time people spend at their desks is often seen as a sign of productivity and loyalty.” — The Economist²
- “Busyness as Proxy for Productivity: In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.” — Cal Newport
“Life is what happens to us while we are (busy) making other plans.” — Allen Saunders
- “Keynes predicted that the age of abundance would make us all relax, because it would be easier to get everything we need, like food, clothes, and entertainment. But maybe knowing that there are 10 great TV shows you should watch, nine important books to read, eight bourgeois skills your child hasn’t mastered, seven ways you’re exercising wrong, six ways you haven’t sufficiently taken advantage of the city, etc., fosters a kind of metastasized paradox of choice, a perma-FOMO. Knowing exactly what we’re missing out makes us feel guilty or anxious about the limits of our time and our capacity to use it effectively.” — The Atlantic6
“When everything feels urgent and important, everything seems equal. We become active and busy, but this doesn’t actually move us any closer to success. Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.” — Gary Keller
Technology should give us time back, not waste it. People are beginning to look for solutions in digital decluttering and digital minimalism.
- “New technologies such as e-mail and smartphones exacerbate this impatience and anxiety. E-mail etiquette often necessitates a response within 24 hours, with the general understanding that sooner is better. Managing this constant and mounting demand often involves switching tasks or multi-tasking, and the job never quite feels done…Multi-tasking is what makes us feel pressed for time.” — The Economist²
- “The idea that work begins and ends at the office is intuitively wrong. We laugh at animal pictures on our work computers, and we answer emails on our couches in front of the TV. On the one hand, flexibility is nice. On the other, blending work and leisure creates an always-on expectation that makes it hard for white-collar workers to escape the shadow of work responsibilities.” — The Atlantic6
- “If work is your life, then how do you disconnect? If you are challenged to let go even when you ‘aren’t at work,’ perhaps it’s time to explore why.” — SmartBrief7
- “The reasons for not disconnecting matter…Is your inability to disconnect fueled by the need for gaining the by-products of your busyness: power and control, money and social status?” — SmartBrief7
“Most people spend the greatest part of their time working in order to live, and what little freedom remains so fills them with fear that they seek out any and every means to be rid of it.” — Goethe
This hypothesis may be one of the most simple yet most overlooked in terms of its affects on modern life. I think it may actually be one of the biggest reasons why we always feel busy today. We’ve never lived in an age of such abundance of choice. Instead of using our leisure time in restorative ways, we do things that continue to drain our energy (mindless passive leisure):
- “We think we don’t have free time when we actually do. We’re simply frittering it away with mindless versions of passive leisure that don’t register as restorative. (According to the latest American Time Use Survey, the average adult spends nearly three hours a day watching TV.)” — Johns Hopkins¹
- “Today you will consume the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of content (five times as much as you would have done in 1986.” — Personnel Today8
“People who live far below their means enjoy a freedom that people busy upgrading their lifestyles can’t fathom.” — Naval
This one was eye-opening for me. For most of us, there’s actually been an increase in leisure time. In comparison to history, we are living in an age of “time affluence.”
- “And while we may legitimately feel busy, Americans’ working hours have steadily decreased over the last seven decades. In 1948, when the government started keeping track, Americans worked an average of 42.8 hours a week. Today we average 38.7, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey.” — NBC9
Research from Gallup shows that the people who are most strapped for time (the truly busy) are people working multiple jobs and caring for children at home. The wealthy are actually voluntarily trading their time for even more money, leading to feelings of busyness:
- “The more cash-rich working Americans are, the more time-poor they feel and that those working adults who report being time-poor are less satisfied with their personal lives.” — Gallup10
I’m going to do a follow-up post after this series on the difference between being busy and feeling busy that will cover this research a bit more.
“We stay so busy that the truth of our lives can’t catch up.” — Brené Brown
With 100% certainty, I can say busyness is what caused my existential crisis. While I wasn’t intentionally running away from anything at the time, it helped me acknowledge my busyness and eventually create my purpose.
- “Busyness becomes our existential comfort pill, the refuge from existential angst.” — Thrive Global11
- “We throw ourselves into frenetic activity and give ourselves the perfect excuse for not doing the big-thinking stuff. In being busy we get to feel productive while procrastinating!” — Personnel Today8
Continue reading the next posts in the series:
- Busyness 201: A Brief History of Work & BUSY in America
- Busyness 301: The Future of BUSY, Work & Leisure
I’ve also expanded on the busyness series with these posts you may also like:
- The Busy Spectrum (High Busyness): What You Need to Know about Workism & Hustle Porn
- The Busy Spectrum (Low Busyness): What You Need to Know about Bullshit Jobs & Performative Busyness