How much 'busy' is good for you?

Science-ish looks at the evidence on workaholism and sweet do-nothing

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“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.”—Tim Kreider, The New York Times

Like many of you, dear readers, Science-ish has been mulling over the recent op-ed “The Busy Trap” in the New York Times. For those who didn’t take time out of their pressure-cooker lives to read the piece, it argued that we’re not necessarily as busy as we think, that we may be choosing busyness because it “serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness” and that a little more stillness would probably render us a happier and more creative lot.

In an age when many of us are tethered to our smartphones, unable to stop working—even outside of the office—Science-ish wondered whether we’d really be better off if we resolved to choose stillness and collectively stop and smell the roses. After all, various philosophers, such as Bertrand Russell, have written in praise of idleness, and there is no end to the anecdotal evidence that would suggest that stillness is the font of creativity. One of the most creative people Science-ish knows noted, “René Descartes invented coordinate geometry—the basis of unifying algebra and geometry—when he was lying in bed daydreaming and a fly was buzzing around and he realized that he could lock in the position of the fly at any instant by three coordinate axes.” There are also the clichés about Isaac Newton under the apple tree and Archimedes’ “Eureka” moment.

Beyond anecdotes, though, the scientific literature is rife with contradictions about the effects of busyness and idleness. In a series of experiments on “idleness aversion,” researchers showed that we chose to be busy over the opposite for the most mundane reasons. The busy people also reported being happier than those who opted to sit around. “Our research suggests that Sisyphus was better off with his punishment than he would have been with a punishment of an eternity of doing nothing,” they concluded, “and that he might have chosen rolling a rock over idleness if he had been given a slight reason for doing so.” Social theorists have also long correlated idleness to criminality and deviant behaviour.

Of course, idleness isn’t all bad. In addition to the tales about the Newtons of the world, there’s evidence to back up the link to creative productivity. Teresa Amabile, a research giant at Harvard Business School, spent the last few decades looking at the relationship among creativity, productivity, and fulfillment in individuals and teams. In her most recent research program, which spanned over a decade, she analyzed nearly 12,000 daily diary entries from professionals on the job and found that low-to-moderate time pressure was optimal for creative productivity. “We call this ‘being on an expedition,’ ” she explained, “where people have enough time to explore for new solutions to problems and come up with new ideas—alone and with colleagues.”

In contrast, “being on a treadmill” was generally a creative killer. “Creativity is rare under that form of time pressure which, unfortunately, is the most common form of time pressure in contemporary organizations,” she said. People sometimes display genius in such environments “but only if they truly believe that what they’re doing is urgently important, and only if they are protected from extraneous demands and distractions.” This state of “being on a mission” sounded like the work of transplant surgeons speedily navigating through an operation or journalists focused on the clock to meet a deadline. Still, that kind of protected busyness “is rare in contemporary organizations and, even when it exists, it can’t last forever because people burn out.”

In fact, too much busyness has also been linked to serious side-effects in other research. This prospective cohort study looked at British middle-aged civil servants and found that working long hours of overtime was linked to major depressive episodes.

Maybe, then, “being on an expedition” is the goal—not so much running that you burn out, but not so little that you end up aimless and unhappy. Amabile agreed. “If you’re extremely busy all the time, you have no time to think and explore better ideas and ways of doing things. But if you have no deadlines, not even self-imposed ones, or if you’re idle a lot, you can get bored and feel that your work is unimportant because there’s absolutely no urgency to it.”

To get to that happy, productive pace, she offered some evidence-based wisdom. First, her diary study revealed it’s important to find work you really care about. “People are most productive and creative when they experience positive ‘inner work life’—pleasant emotions like happiness, positive perceptions of their colleagues and bosses, and strong intrinsic motivation for the work itself.”

Her second bit of advice is to find a work environment that allows you to make “meaningful progress in that work,” she said, “even if that progress is a ‘small win,’ a seemingly minor step forward.” These little victories may come in the form of recognition from a boss or colleague and clearly defined goals. Or they can come from within, by keeping track of your own progress and noting your accomplishments each day. So even on the treadmill, it’s up to us to find the spaces in between. “Most people still need some less busy time for reflection and incubation of ideas and problems,” said Amabile. “They should either create it for themselves, say, by escaping for a few minutes during the workday or, ideally, they will have a manager or a team that will open up that space in the workday.”

Science-ishis a joint project of Maclean’s, the Medical Post and the McMaster Health Forum. Julia Belluz is the associate editor at the Medical Post. Got a tip? Seen something that’s Science-ish? Message her at julia.belluz@medicalpost.rogers.com or on Twitter @juliaoftoronto

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