Is Being “Too Busy” Actually Making You Less Productive at Work?

February 6, 2017


Everyone knows that the busier you are, the more work you’re doing. The busier you are, the more eligible you are for promotions and accolades. The more your coworkers realize your importance. The more you’re “getting ahead” in a life that seems ever-more stuffed with activities and obligations.

But hold on: is being extremely “busy” actually the goal of your job? Or is it actually working against your long-term career success?

We’re diving into work/life balance at Argentus. So following on our post about France’s “right to disconnect from work email at home, we wanted to comment about the topic of being the busiest person you know and whether that’s all it’s cut out to be.

A recent Washington Post article, titled “How Busyness Became a Bona Fide Status Symbol” gives some interesting science on the topic of how we correlate “busyness” with success. For some of us, being busy – working longer hours, cramming our hours at work with as much multitasking as possible – is a way of life. A badge of honour. A sort of humble brag. Someone asks us how things are going at work, and we say “it’s so busy right now” lest we seem unambitious, or seem like we’re falling behind. The culture of Busyness is so ingrained that it’s become a marker of status.

The post article describes a recent joint study from Columbia, Harvard and Georgetown where participants consistently described those who work longer hours as having a higher social status. The perception is that people who work longer hours are necessarily thriving in their careers. Whereas markers of professional success used to be tied to conspicuous consumption (the “keeping up with the joneses” of a new car and new luxury goods), the study shows that now, the true mark of success is being recognized as so busy that you must be important and valued in your role.

Interestingly, participants in the study also associated products that offer convenience, multitasking, and “time saving” as being just as valuable as luxury goods, showing that coping with “busyness” is a major priority for consumers as well as companies. Online services associated with time-saving – for example online grocery retailers – enjoy the same perceived brand quality as high-end brick and mortar retailers (for example Whole Foods).

Being too busy to take a vacation is a form of social capital that’s now more impressive than the more outward markers of career success of the past. If you’re seen as constantly tied up, constantly at your desk, you have more social capital than someone who has more leisure time – even if they get more done.  “In other words,” writes the article’s author Jena McGregor,  “getting the work done fast and having more time for leisure was not something associated with prestige.”

This perception has filtered upward to managers at companies who – despite warnings to the contrary – often reward time worked rather than results in practice. We talk a good game about wanting to see tangible results – new supplier initiatives, cost savings, improving fill rate – but chafe when the junior leaves the office before the boss, even if the junior is excelling by every other conceivable metric.

How many of us find that when we’re extremely busy, when we maximize our multitasking, we have less attention and each individual task suffers? In a popular LinkedIn post, HR Strategist Ed Baldwin asserts that busy is the new stupid. That’s a little blunt, but he raises some good points: “I’ve found that the most productive and successful people I’ve ever met are busy, but you wouldn’t know it. They find time that others don’t. And while you may not get much of their time, when you do, you get their undivided attention. They are fully present and maximize every moment of the interaction. No multi-tasking because that’s as bad as blowing you off all together.”

And this: “being busy makes us hurried, creates short-sightedness, expands blind spots, increases careless mistakes and results in missed opportunities that we can’t get back.”

It’s something worth thinking about.

Supply Chain, Procurement, Logistics, are all about uncovering efficiency. As people in the Supply Chain industry, shouldn’t we value efficiency in work? A supplier who looks busy all the time, who you can’t actually talk to, might look like an important and valued partner, but is that “busyness” costing you? In your own role, and in managing others, don’t you think we should value results rather than how much time it takes up to achieve them?

To be sure, lots of workplaces are waking up to this fact, and emphasizing a more results-based approach to employee evaluation. But the ingrained culture of busyness is hard to shake. So how do companies and employees respond? We’d love to hear your thoughts! 



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