If you’re anything like we are, you like being busy — at least to an extent. Getting stuff done makes us feel good, and it’s better than sitting around staring at the wall. But being too busy? That’s another story.
It’s not just because we like having downtime to catch up on the latest Game Of Thrones episodes (though that’s legit too). The real reason that being too busy sucks? It actually makes you less productive.
A recent article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) revealed the results of a research project that explored the causes of work-life conflict. Spoiler alert: Being too busy made the list. Big time. Let’s take a look at the most pressing findings and share some easy ways to keep busyness from breaking your focus.
What is the Busyness Paradox?
The project in question didn’t merely study the factors that lead to work-life conflict; it aimed to design solutions that would improve people’s work-life balance by changing their behaviors. To do this they had to address what’s called the busyness paradox.
You know when you have so much to do you kind of lose sight of the big picture? That’s the busyness paradox. We get overwhelmed. We can’t focus on everything at once, so the only way to cope is to narrow down our focus onto the one thing in front of us at the expense of everything else.
Behavioral scientists call this tunneling.
Tunneling is when being focused works against us. We end up putting our energy into tasks that are immediately pressing (like going to meetings or answering emails), rather than those that have high long-term value (like planning a project).
In the HBR article, researcher Brigid Schulte outlines three ways that workplaces can design their environments to help their workers escape the busyness paradox. It’s worth checking out the full article to get the low down on these.
3 Dangers of Being Too Busy — and How to Solve Them
But since these tips are directed at the managers and bosses who have power over the way the work environment is structured, we wanted to delve a little into how we as individuals can combat the harms of being too busy on an everyday basis.
Let’s take a look
1. Being too busy makes you worse at making decisions
Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir found that when people entered a tunneling mindset their IQ dropped about 13 points. Why is this?
It has to do with scarcity. When something is scarce we become preoccupied with getting more of it, and our cognitive abilities suffer as a result. It’s like when you’re on a diet and all you can think about is food. It’s the same for time. When time is scarce, we’re inclined to make poor decisions because our tunnel-vision means we don’t consider all the available options.
On top of this, tunneling limits our mental bandwidth, which makes it harder for us to control our impulses. We’re therefore less likely to take care of ourselves or make decisions that are in our best interests. Ultimately, we suffer, as does our productivity.
What you can do about it:
- Give your brain a break: “Increasing work hours, working people harder, forgoing vacations, and so on are all tunneling responses,” say Mullainthan and Shafir in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. “They ignore the long-term consequences.” Instead, they say, let your mind “out for a jog”. For example, rather than trying to free up time by working harder, look to free up cognitive bandwidth by taking effective breaks.
- Build slack into your schedule. Says Shafir, “When you pack your life too tightly and don’t leave slack, the slightest unexpected event leaves you stuck.” When you know you have “a half-hour here or there intentionally left open” to take care of anything you didn’t anticipate or to complete tasks that are taking longer than expected, time will feel less scarce. Slack time is padding between you and panic — it keeps you out of the tunnel.
2. Being too busy means you lose sight of your priorities and long-term goals
Do you feel like you’re always busy… but not necessarily productive? So did the participants in Schulte’s study. In her piece for HBR she says they “found it difficult to find chunks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on a big project, much less plan or think or strategize.”
What you can do about it:
- Be clear about what your priorities are — and consciously schedule in time to pursue them. This can stop you from getting caught up in the day-to-day “busyness” of tasks that don’t actually contribute to your long term goals.
- Use the right tools. Because it’s so easy to not sit down and think about our priorities regularly, consider using a tool to prompt you. You might use a productivity app or a paper-based planner like Panda Planner which has goals and priorities built into it, so you always remember to list them down and align your schedule with them.
3. Being too busy can lead to burnout
It goes without saying that being burned out is not a desirable state. Burnout has been shown to produce a whole laundry list of problems that impact your productivity and health — from reducing gray matter in the brain to disrupting creativity, problem-solving, and working memory.
So what exactly causes burnout? Research shows that long working hours aren’t the only culprit. According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, a psychological tool for measuring burnout, the three main dimensions are emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (feeling impersonal toward your job), and lack of personal accomplishment. So burnout can happen when we’re so busy that the demands of our work overtake its rewards.
Going back to the HBR article, an underlying reason for overworking in the first place is social comparison. We’re inclined to overestimate how much work everyone else is doing, and we feel that we have to work more to keep up.
On top of this, being too busy is often worn as a badge of honor. Why? Because busyness is linked to higher status and makes others think we’re important.
What you can do about it:
- Consider why you’re too busy in the first place. Does being overworked equate to glory? Are you focusing on how you compare to others, rather than on your own goals and priorities?
- Mitigate being overworked in order to prevent burnout. Rest and relaxation can combat emotional exhaustion. Reflection is another useful tool: Counting three good things at the end of the day, for example, has been shown to have positive benefits. Focus your good things on what you accomplished that day as a way of making your work more meaningful and rewarding.
- Look after your health. Say Mullainathan and Shafir: “Schedule breaks for walks and stick to a regular bedtime. Sacrificing health to put in longer hours takes a toll on us mentally, physically and emotionally, which diminishes performance.”
Your turn: Does your productivity suffer when you get too busy? How do you cope with having too much to do?
Author: Tania Braukamper
Tania Braukamper is an Australian-born writer and photographer. She believes in curiosity, kindness, and adventure as a state of mind.