The Illusion of Productivity: Why We Are Addicted to Busyness

Ever since humans have learned to write, we have documented how special we are and how we differ from other animals. Imagination, morality, and culture are traits thought to only be found in humans.

Another aspect that seems to be uniquely human is the need to keep busy. Most animals would be happy if their basic needs are met: food, shelter, rest. In contrast, we humans don’t like to stay idle. Even if it means falling prey to the illusion of productivity.

The Need to Keep Busy

In a research study about busyness and idleness, scientists asked participants to go deliver a survey in one of two locations which they could choose from.

The first option was nearby, allowing people to complete the task quicker, come back to the research center, and wait, doing nothing (the idle option); the second option was far away, with very little time to wait once they’d come back (the busy option).

Which option did people choose? Turns out, it depended on one small element: whether or not they had a justification—even if only specious—to choose the “busy” option.

The participants were told they were going to get a piece of chocolate as a reward. If they were told the chocolate would be the same regardless of the option they picked, only 32% of participants chose the faraway location. But if they were told they would get milk chocolate at one location and dark chocolate at the other, 59% picked the “busy” option.

It doesn’t seem that groundbreaking at first, but the implications are profound: as humans, we tend to do whatever it takes and to use any justification to keep busy, even if the task is meaningless. In the words of the scientists behind the study: “Our research suggests that many purported goals that people pursue may be merely justifications to keep themselves busy.”

Busyness and the Illusion of Being Productive

In her book Daring Greatly, Dr Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, describes being “crazy busy” as a numbing strategy that allows us to avoid facing the truth of our lives. “I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums.”

She explains that we would rather fill the time with activities—any kind of activity—than to take the risk of finding ourselves alone with our thoughts. And our society encourages this behavior: being idle or having too much free time is often considered a sign of laziness.

Furthermore, being “crazy busy” both justifies and reinforces living on autopilot. Instead of stopping for a few minutes to ask ourselves why we’re doing something, we keep on mindlessly churning work that may or may not lead to a goal we actually care about. It’s also one of the only socially acceptable excuses to not do the things that matter. Taking time for yourself? Feeling irritated? Forgot to do something important for a friend? You can blame it on being too busy.

Being busy does not equal being productive. When I get distracted by email notifications or when I check social media in the middle of writing an article, the interruption may give me the illusion of being busy. It will take longer to write the article because I keep breaking my state of flow. I will feel like I have worked all afternoon on something, when in reality I just didn’t manage to focus enough to get it done quicker.

By feeling constantly busy, I also don’t leave room for pure creative thinking—instead, I’m filling my brain with external stimuli to give it something to do. As the study I mentioned earlier shows, it feels good. We like being busy. It’s reassuring. But it doesn’t mean it’s good for us.

The Busyness Matrix

Between work tasks and social commitments, it’s easy to spend your entire week running around without really knowing where the time has gone. To break free from busyness, I have created a simple tool you can use to conduct a busyness audit and see what’s keeping you so busy.

You’ll ideally need a full week of data, but if your routine doesn’t change too much throughout the week you could do this in just one day.

First, track your time and record what you spend it on. You can use an app like Rize (see my interview with the founder here) or simply put everything you do in your calendar.

Then, place these tasks and activities in the following matrix, based on relevance and meaningfulness:

The Busyness Matrix - Conducting a Busyness Audit and Breaking Free from the Illusion of Productivity
The Busyness Matrix

Relevance is based on how aligned the tasks and activities are with your current professional and personal commitments. Meaningfulness is based on how alive these tasks make you feel.

For instance, attending a boring networking event is relevant but probably not meaningful. An exciting work project or planning your next holiday is both relevant and meaningful. Taking an online course to learn how to speak Chinese may not be relevant to your current commitments, but may feel highly meaningful. Attending meetings with no clear agenda or aimlessly browsing social media are neither relevant nor meaningful.

Now, look at your Busyness Matrix, and look at each quadrant in this order:

  • Irrelevant/Meaningless: Can you reduce or get rid of any of these?
  • Irrelevant/Meaningful: Are you sure you don’t have too many going on at the same time?
  • Relevant/Meaningless: Can you delegate some of these?
  • Relevant/Meaningful: Do you have enough time and energy for these?

Once you’re done with the audit, you can make changes in your life and work to reclaim your time. However, don’t try to tackle the quadrants all at once. Start eliminating as many irrelevant/meaningless tasks, and work your way up to making space for relevant/meaningful ones.

Getting Off the Hamster Wheel

Breaking our addiction to busyness doesn’t have to be hard, but it does require a conscious mindset shift. Having more free time is something we say we want, but it’s going against our deeply rooted fear of being alone with our thoughts and facing the reality of our lives. That’s why it can be liberating, but also pretty scary. Here are some simple changes you can implement:

  1. Change your perspective. First, stop saying “I don’t have time”. Instead, say “It’s not a priority.” Remind yourself that there is enough time in a day to do the things you care about.
  2. Less doing, more achieving. Don’t measure productivity in terms of how many tasks you get done, but rather in terms of doing the ones that matter. Clean up your to-do list. Shift your focus from tasks to outcomes.
  3. Start saying no. Don’t take stuff on just because someone asked you. Question whether this new task will translate into meaningful outcomes. It may be strange at first (you could say “not right now” instead of “no” if that’s easier) but it will help you better manage your time.
  4. Make peace with inaction. To help you get comfortable with doing nothing, schedule time with yourself for dedicated downtime. Reflect or take a short walk.

Reclaiming your time to focus on what really matters can have a big impact on where you will be one year from now. All these moments we spend on irrelevant and meaningless tasks to avoid being alone with ourselves can be used for thinking, exciting work, or time spent with loved ones. It all adds up pretty quickly, so getting rid of the illusion of productivity is worth the initial discomfort of confronting our own thoughts.

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