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Busyness Addiction

Part Two: The Link to Productivity

written by Ray Williams August 25, 2020
Busyness Addiction

This is Part Two of a four-part series about our modern-day addiction to busyness. Here, Ray Williams discusses busyness and the link to productivity. 

Busyness and Productivity

“Nowadays we’re expected to accomplish much more with our time,” says David Levy, Ph.D., professor at the School of Information at the University of Washington. In an attempt to get extra work done, we “multitask,” always trying to do two or three things at the same time. So we may eat our fast-food lunch and conduct business calls while we’re driving or checking our email. Rarely do we focus our attention on just one task anymore.” A big negative to all this multitasking, he adds, is that it is far more intellectually draining than single-tasking.

David Meyer from the University of Michigan published a study that showed that switching what you’re doing mid-task increases the time it takes you to finish both tasks by 25%. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” Meyer said.


Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.

Microsoft decided to study this phenomenon in their workers and found that it took people an average of 15 minutes to return to their important projects (such as writing reports or computer code) every time they were interrupted by emails, phone calls or other messages. They didn’t spend the 15 minutes on the interrupting messages, either; the interruptions led them to stray to other activities, such as surfing the Web for pleasure.

When you try to do two things at once, your brain lacks the capacity to perform both tasks successfully. In a breakthrough study, René Marois and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University used MRIs to successfully pinpoint a physical source for this bottleneck. “We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it can,” Marois explained. We’re so enamored with multitasking that we think we’re getting more done, even though our brains aren’t physically capable of this. Regardless of what we might think, we are most productive when we manage our schedules enough to ensure that we can focus effectively on the task at hand. That implies doing less not doing more. “Busy” People are Actually not that Productive – Quartz

The Role of Technology

There are other factors at play as well. Mobile devices allow employees to be reached anywhere, anytime. ‘We can’t get away from work anymore,’ says Gabe Ignatow, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of North Texas who studies social change. ‘Even when we’re relaxing on the weekends, we’re often bombarded with emails, text messages and calls from the office.’

Other digital distractions — namely, social media — can make us feel even more inundated. ‘Many people feel like they have to keep up with the endless stream of Facebook, Twitter and other social media posts, so that consumes even more of our time,’ Dr. Ignatow adds.

In terms of work, there’s the trend, particularly for managers and professionals, of staying late at the office and going in on weekends to get more done.

“Nowadays there’s this pressure that if we don’t work 50 to 60 hours a week, we’ll get laid off if our company is downsized,” observes Susan Mackey, Ph.D., a psychologist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University.

In households with children, both parents are often employed outside the home. According to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of mothers with kids under 18 are in the labor force, meaning they either have a job or are looking for one. By contrast, in 1960 only 20 percent of mothers worked outside the home.

With Mom employed, both parents have become busier. “Families are really overworked nowadays in the sense that they’ve turned the woman’s contribution from an at-home contribution to a money contribution, but the work at home still needs to be done,” states University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, Ph.D. Today’s mothers and fathers have to divvy up the work of stay-at-home mom between them and do that on top of their regular, paid jobs, she says.

When housework and child-care hours are added to time spent on jobs and commutes, Dr. Waite estimates many American fathers and mothers are each working 70-plus hours a week.

In essence, we have lost our belief in “dolce far niente,” how sweet to do nothing.

Our inability to do this is exacerbated by our incapacity to unplug from the digital world. I argued in my article “Why it’s so Hard to Unplug from the Digital World,” we may be actually addicted to the digital virtual world, which can physically disconnect us from others and our inner selves.

In my article in Psychology Today,  “Workaholism and The Myth of Hard Work,” I argue that a “contributing factor to the problem of workaholism is the prevailing belief in hard work as the route to success, particularly wealth.”

Notions of hard work are predominantly held by the middle class and poor people and originate from the industrial revolution and Protestant religious tenants, which viewed hard work both as a virtue and magic formula for success. Hard work has never been a belief embraced by the upper class and wealthy.”

We now equate busyness and overwork with productivity but the two are not the same. In the same way, we’ve equated “seat time,” that is time workers spend in their seats at their desks or in meetings, as equivalent to productive work. It may be the reverse.

In a New York Times article, “Let’s Be Less Productive,” author Tim Jackson defines productivity as “the amount of output delivered per hour of work in the economy.” Jackson’s perspective underscores the perception that productivity in all its forms is measured in economic terms and in terms of time. Jackson goes on to say, “time is money … We’ve become conditioned by the language of efficiency.”

Sara Robinson, writing an insightful article in Salon magazine, on the issue of overwork, “Bring Back the 40-hour Work Week,” says “150 years of research proves that long hours at work will kill profits, productivity and employees.” Yet, for most of the 20th century, the broad consensus among American business leaders was that working people more than 40 hours a week was “stupid, wasteful, dangerous and expensive — and the most telling sign of dangerously incompetent management,” Robinson argues.

Citing the work of Tom Walker of the Work Less Institute’s Prosperity Covenant, “That output does not rise or fall in direct proportion to the number of hours worked is a lesson that seemingly has to be learned by each generation.”

Robinson also cites the work of Evan Robinson, a software engineer who published a paper for the International Developers’ Association in 2005 that argued throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, and ‘60s, research studies conducted by businesses, universities, industry associations and the military supported the shorter (maximum 40 hour) work week. The research indicated that productivity does not rise substantially in extended work days or weeks. Extensive data showed that longer hours of work actually resulted in reduced efficiency and catastrophic accidents, which brought with them substantial liabilities to employers. The research showed that extended hours resulted in reduced brain functioning and physical fatigue, which actually results in loss of productivity.

Business Roundtable study found that after just eight 60-hour weeks the fall-off in productivity is so marked that the average team would have actually gotten just as much done and been better off if they’d just stuck to a 40-hour week all along. And at 70- or 80-hour weeks, the fall-off happens even faster; at 80 hours, the break-even point is reached in just three weeks. Studies on this subject conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Proctor and Gamble Company, the National Electrical Contractors Association, and the Mechanical Contractors Association of American produced similar results. All of them showed that continuing scheduled overtime has a strong negative effect on productivity, which increases in magnitude proportionate to the amount and duration of overtime.

Critics of these studies cite the fact that they focus on physical jobs and don’t apply to the majority of employees who are “knowledge workers.” Robinson argues that research shows that actually knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than physical workers — about six. U.S. military research has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a .10 blood alcohol level. And what’s worse, most of them “typically have no idea of just how impaired they are,” says Robinson. Robinson cites the follow-up investigations on the Exxon Valdez disaster and the Challenger explosion, where investigators determined that overworked, overtired decision-makers played a significant role in bringing about those disasters.

So what has accounted for our sudden loss of memory of knowledge about working hours and productivity that pervaded most of the 20th century?

Robinson points to two factors. The first of these is the development of technology as a cornerstone of our economy, and the culture at the center of that technology—Silicon Valley. The jobs there have attracted a unique breed of brilliant young men and women who fit a particular profile: “single-minded, socially awkward, emotionally detached and blessed (or cursed) with a singular, unique, laser-like focus on some particular area of obsessive interest. For these people, work wasn’t just work; it was their life’s passion and they devoted every waking hour to it, usually to the exclusion of non-work relationships, exercise, sleep, food and sometimes even personal care,” argues Robinson.  Overwork and overtime didn’t even appear in their vocabulary.

The new technological corporate ethics and slogans reflected these young overworked employees. For example, Microsoft’s “churn’em and burn’em” which translated meant hiring young programmers fresh out of university and working them 70 hours a week or more until they dropped, and then firing them and replacing them with new ones. Fortunately, Microsoft has abandoned this practice.

The second and related development which strengthened the prevalence of overwork was management philosophy and leadership style. Taking management guru Tom Peters’ message of passion for work was translated into working more is the only answer to productivity. And so any aspiring manager or executive worth his salt, who worked 40 hours a week or less would not be considered promotable talent, or worse, laughed out of the office for appearing to be lazy.

The 2008 recession has entrenched the notion of overwork as a necessity now, as opposed to an optional strategy. The recession has resulted in massive layoffs across all industries, but the level of work expected of the employees who remain has not just remained the same, it has increased to compensate for lost employees. And even where businesses have shown some improvement now, managers are loath to rehire or hire new employees, because the norm of fewer employees with the impression of equal productivity is an argument against doing so. As Robinson argues, “for every four Americans working a 50-hour week, every week, there’s one American who should have a full-time job, but doesn’t. Our rampant unemployment problem would vanish overnight if we simply worked the way we’re supposed to by law.”

This is Part Two of a four-part series.

Part One- Are You Addicted To Busyness?

Part Three- Busyness Addiction: The Psychology

Part Four- Addicted to Busyness


Read my latest book: Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon and Barnes & Noble in the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia and Asia.

Copyright: Neither this article nor a portion thereof may be reproduced in any print or media format without the express permission of the author.

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