The busyness paradox: Why you love being busy (even though it’s burning you out)

Why do we feel so compelled to always be busy? Why is it that the moment there’s not a mile-high stack of tasks or projects on our plate, we suddenly feel anxious and unsettled (when really the opposite should be the case). Busyness has become the new normal. And that’s a problem. 

There’s a paradox when it comes to busyness that goes like this: 

Anyone with professional ambition strives to do great work and be recognized for their talent, and therefore in high demand (i.e. busy). However, the more in demand you are (i.e. busy), the harder it is to provide the same quality of work or creative thinking that got you there in the first place. 

If being in demand is proof you’re doing a good job, it’s easy to mistake busyness for validation. But the opposite of busyness isn’t laziness or emptiness or unmoored drifting through life. It’s purpose. Choice. Prioritization. Being busy is letting others control your time. Being purposeful is being in the driver’s seat.

So how can we get out of the busyness trap and take back control of our time? 

RescueTime helps you stay focused on the work that matters most. Find our more and try it for free today!

Why busyness became the new workplace religion (and how it’s killing creativity, productivity, and happiness)

busyness is a workplace religion

When you give in to the cult of busyness, you give up one of the greatest tools we have for being productive, happy, and protecting ourselves from burnout: rest. In order to do meaningful work, become more creative and productive, we need to take a step away from the always-on, no-room-to-breathe, hectic pace of the modern workplace.

But instead of stepping back, most of us lean in. We do more to make up for our lack of original thinking when we should be doing less

When the team at ideas42 studied the situations and working styles that lead to busyness, overwork, and burnout, they found one common trait. While pretty much every organization claims that balance and time off are key values, few actually act that way.  

“At one organization, workers said they felt that no one should work more than 45 hours a week. Yet the typical employee actually works more than 52.”

But why is that? Why do we drown in busyness after saying we don’t want to? 

For some people, it’s unrealistic expectations. Your company is understaffed and overworked and you feel there’s no other choice. For others, it might come from poor time management skills. You’re bouncing from one task to the other with little time to focus on what really needs to get done. 

(Our own research of 185 million hours of working time found that most people only have 2 hours and 48 minutes a day of productive time.)

But there’s another, more common scenario: You like being busy.  

As author Tim Kreider writes in The Busy Trap, busyness is usually self-imposed. The people most likely to complain about busyness got into that state from their own ambition, drive, and the anxiety of what they might face in the absence of busyness:  

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” 

How busyness becomes burnout

Busy burnout

Being busy makes us feel good. But it’s also burning us out. 

Even when we know we want to find more work-life balance, spend time on meaningful work, and disconnect at the end of the day, actually doing that is another story. 

This is thanks to a behavioral phenomenon called tunneling. Here’s how it works.

When we’re busy running around, answering emails, putting out fires, and racing to back-to-back meetings, time becomes much more scarce. To deal with that scarcity, our brains effectively put on blinders. 

Suddenly, we’re not able to look at the big picture and instead can only concentrate on the most immediate (often low-value) tasks in front of us. (Research has even found that we lose 13 IQ points when we’re in a tunneling state!)

However, when we pop our heads above water at the end of the day, we realize that we’ve spent barely any time on the work that really matters. In one study published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that at most companies, employees spend 80% of their day on this busywork. In the end, this leaves “employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

When we’re too busy to complete our work during work, we take it home with us. Even worse, we don’t see the problem in that. As Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, writes

“Unlike a century ago, when Americans showed their status in leisure time, busyness has become the new badge of honor.” 

Without intervention, we fall back into the same habit day after day and our busyness compounds until we hit burnout

What’s the opposite of busyness?

Working with purpose

So if busyness is so bad, what’s the alternative? Sloth? Laziness? Apathy? As we said earlier, busyness isn’t just the absence of time. It’s also the absence of choice.

The opposite of being busy is being purposeful. You can be purposefully busy, but you can’t be busy and purposeful. Click To Tweet

As Tim Kreider writes: 

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.”

You don’t have to just take his word on it, either. For years, researchers have proven the positive impact of activities that are in stark contrast to busyness. Here’s just a few:

  • Boredom and daydreaming: Research shows that being bored or idle activates a wider area of the brain and helps improve creative thinking.    
  • Deliberate rest: Engaging in activities you enjoy outside of work (like hobbies) is one of the most common traits among highly successful artists, entrepreneurs, and executives.  
  • Flow: One study found that executives able to focus deeply on a single task were 500% more productive than when bouncing between tasks. 
  • Socializing: In one study, people who engaged in social interaction showed higher levels of cognitive performance immediately afterward. 
  • Disconnecting from work: Research has found that people able to disconnect from work have less work-related fatigue, lower rates of procrastination, and better mental and physical health. 

3 ways to reduce the busyness in your workday and life

It’s not enough to just say you want to be less busy. As we’ve already seen, busyness leads to bad decision-making and burnout. Instead, to break out of the busyness trap, you need to gain insight and awareness into how you’re getting trapped in the first place. 

However, this doesn’t mean that busyness is strictly a personal issue. Like most issues of time management and focus, it’s the responsibility of both the individual and the organization to fix it.

Whether you’re an employee or a manager, here are a few suggestions to help you and your workplace be less busy:

1. Understand where your time is actually going each day

The simplest way to stop from tunneling is to get insight into where your time is going and set guardrails during the workday. 

First, let’s talk about getting insight into how you’re spending your day. Using RescueTime, you can get an accurate picture of how you’re spending your time on your computer, phone, and even in meetings and calls.

To start, use the Productivity Pulse and top activities on the main RescueTime dashboard to quickly gauge how you’re spending your time. 

RescueTime dashboard

However, if you want to be more active in reducing busyness you need to go beyond reflection. By setting up RescueTime Alerts, you can automatically get notified when you’re falling into the trap of busywork. 

For example, I have an Alert that gets triggered if I spend more than an hour on email in the morning. If I go over, I get a desktop notification reminding me that “Emails don’t just take up time but distract me from more important work.” (You can customize the message for yourself). 

RescueTime Alerts for dealing with busyness

2. Schedule your busyness with time blocking

It’s impossible to say you won’t fall into busywork during the workday. There are always fires to be put out and meetings to attend. But where busy turns into busyness is when you give it the freedom to control your schedule. 

Instead, you can contain the amount of daily busyness by setting aside time for it. One method that helps with this is time blocking

Simply put, time blocking is the practice of planning out every moment of your day in advance and dedicating specific “blocks” for certain tasks or responsibilities.

For example, you can “block” out time in the morning for meaningful work and your top priorities. And then set aside time in the afternoon for busy work like meetings and calls. 

Reduce busyness with time blocking

This helps reduce busyness for a number of reasons. 

First, time-blocking forces you to recognize and set aside time for the work that actually makes an impact. This might be coding or writing or designing—whatever task you were hired to do. 

Second, it causes you to batch your busywork into specific moments during the day rather than constantly switch between it and other work. Studies have found we lose 20-80% of our productive time when we try to switch between tasks (aka multitask). 

However, whenever you plan out your time in this way, you need to be aware of the Planning Fallacy—our tendency to be overoptimistic about how long a task will take us. You can start by making your best guess, and then use RescueTime to hold yourself accountable and adjust your schedule.  

3.  Make both work and non-work time more transparent

Busyness is a byproduct of one of the largest shifts in how we work.

With the rise of knowledge work, it’s not always easy to show tangible results at the end of the day. Our work and specific goals are fuzzy, which causes people to be more performative in how they work. We act busy because we want people to think we’re working hard. 

But by being more transparent about our workload we don’t have to be busy to be seen as important. As Brigid Schulte writes, transparency creates “positive friction” every time someone calls a meeting:

“With priority work made more transparent, calling a meeting won’t be seen as cost free, but a values trade-off: what is everyone not doing because they’re at this meeting? And is the meeting the better use of everyone’s time?”

This transparency extends to your non-work time as well. As a manager or lead, your team follows your example. 

When we interviewed 700+ professionals about how professional communication bleeds into their personal life, 60% said they both check and reply to work emails outside of work hours almost every day.

Instead, being transparent about how you’re spending your time outside of work allows the rest of your team to actually disconnect and recharge.  

Life is about more than just being busy

There’s nothing worse than getting home after a long day of work and asking “what did I even do?”

Busyness robs us of our purpose and agency. Instead of feeling in control and making progress on meaningful work, we end up running around with little to show for it at the end of the day.

This is nothing new. As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca writes in On The Shortness of Life: 

“Everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things, since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.”

Or, as Tim Kreider writes in the conclusion of The “Busy” Trap: 

“Life is too short to be busy.”

How do you handle busyness? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

4 comments

  1. For the first time in my life I have a different problem. I have downtime in my position while waiting on others to complete their work. My question is, what is the best way to be purposeful with my downtime which strangely leaves me feeling adrift, unproductive and lacking purpose.

    1. That’s definitely a problem we’ve heard other people talk about. We even have a blog post that addresses what to do with your downtime: https://blog.rescuetime.com/downside-of-downtime/

      Ultimately, I think the best use of that time is to take control of it. I know I end up feeling adrift and frustrated when I’m waiting on other people or feel like my work isn’t being put to use because of something outside of my control. In those moments, I try to do something that is under my control, like getting ahead on other projects, looking for ways to optimize communication and collaboration with teammates, or even work on other work-related skills.

  2. Thank you Jory, these words have uplited my soul – ”But the opposite of busyness isn’t laziness or emptiness or unmoored drifting through life. It’s purpose. Choice. Prioritization. Being busy is letting others control your time. Being purposeful is being in the driver’s seat.”

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