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Are You Busy or Productive?

Until a couple of years ago, every time someone would ask me how I was doing, I would always give the same answer: I am so busy. Extremely busy. Crazy busy.

I wore my exhaustion like a trophy, as a sign of my strength and a mark of my character. (At one point I ran a Mother’s Day half-marathon with a fever, not wanting to disappoint my family who’d driven 5 hours to watch me.) The busier I was, the more important I felt. I was committed to pressing on, despite clear signs that I was headed for a fall.

I had been done in by our culture’s big lie, which is:  Busyness is a marker of importance, of character, of economic security.

And this means that the reverse must also be true: If we aren’t busy, we lack importance. We’re insignificant. We’re under-achieving. We’re weak. Un-busy people are lazy, not to be liked or trusted.

Let’s think for a minute about what it really means when we say that we are busy.

If I tell you I’m busy, it isn’t because I’ve just spent an hour hiking, or playing with my dog. It isn’t because I’ve spent the whole afternoon working on an engaging project, and lost all sense of time. I won’t lead with “I’m so busy” if I’m feeling passionate about something I’m writing, or if I feel super creative and productive and efficient and at ease.

I will only tell you I’m busy if I’m hurried. A little on edge. Doing a bunch of stuff that doesn’t really capture my interest or imagination. If you tell me that you are busy, your unconscious is hinting to me that you are a little unhappy or overtired, that you are willing to sacrifice your well-being for your career or your boss or your team at work, or for the long-term success of your children, or doing what you (or other people) think you “should” be doing.

Busy-ness does not make us happy. It also does not make us successful.

The truth is that busyness is a mark of what neuroscientists call “cognitive overload.” This state of feeling overwhelmed impairs our ability to think creatively, to plan, organize, innovate, solve problems, make decisions, resist temptations, learn new things easily, speak fluently, remember important social information (like the name of our boss’s daughter, or our daughter’s boss), and control our emotions. In other words, it impairs basically everything we need to do in a given day.

Cognitive overload is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential. Click To TweetCognitive overload – busyness – is a not a sign that we are important or productive. It is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential.” username=”raisinghappines”]

Cognitive overload–busyness–is a not a sign that we are important or productive. It is a sign that we aren’t fulfilling our potential.

It’s also a sign that we aren’t as physically healthy as we could be. Scott Dannemiller, in his post “Busy is a Sickness,” quotes Dr. Suzanne Koven, an internist at the Massachusetts General Hospital:

“In the past few years, I’ve observed an epidemic of sorts: patient after patient suffering from the same condition. The symptoms of this condition include fatigue, irritability, insomnia, anxiety, headaches, heartburn, bowel disturbances, back pain, and weight gain. There are no blood tests or X-rays diagnostic of this condition, and yet it’s easy to recognize. The condition is excessive busyness.”

Busyness causes health problems. And yet the type of busyness we are talking about is entirely within our control (as opposed to the busyness of someone living in poverty, working multiple minimum-wage jobs just to keep the lights on and the children fed). The busyness of the affluent and middle-class is an illness we are choosing, “like voluntarily licking the door handle of a preschool bathroom,” writes Dannemiller.

Let’s stop choosing busyness.

Take Action: Here are 5 tactics to help dial back the overwhelm:

  1. Stare into Space
  2. Find the “Minimum Effective Dose”
  3. Change Your Mantra
  4. Single Task
  5. Clear Mental Clutter by Making a Plan

Pick the one that feels easiest for you, and then make it a routine!

Join the Discussion: Which of these tactics works best for you? What else helps you feel less busy? Do you agree that busyness is an illness we are choosing?

Photo courtesy of Tim Caynes.


  1. Ella says:

    Thank you, Christine, for sharing your insightful thoughts about the syndrome of being too busy. I agree that there is a misconception in our society about the need to be busy in order to be successful. At the same time I think we increasingly understand the need for being “mindful” which is nearly impossible when we are “harried”. I personally love what I am doing and at times I feel that there is too much to do and too little time. The strategy which helped me most was (in addition to having a long term plan of my priorities – which include private priorities as they tend to be too easily forgotten) to make a plan for the next week in which I specify what needs to happen and a plan of how I can make it happen. If I see my week is too full already, I start eliminating items (which can be delegated, respectfully postponed, eliminated, etc.). That has helped me stay sane even during rather stressful times. In other words, my 20-30 minutes of planning on the weekend are time well spent and are now part of my routine.

  2. John says:

    I’m interested in this subject and generally agree. Here’s the BUT – I’ve read a bit on the subject and am always slightly uneasy with the idea that — “(busyness) It also does not make us successful.”
    Another example from Barbara Fredrickson. -She talks about how studies show we are less effective and don’t achieve as much etc when we are too busy. Barbara and Christine are very successful people and seem very creative!
    Both are self confessed workaholics and I find it a bit hard to swallow that their powerful focus on work wasn’t what got them where they are today. -Successful and influential. Christine, your now proposing that not being busy is the way to more productivity and creativity, but you’ve previously done all the work to get you to where you are today.
    I hope this isn’t coming across as too critical, but I just wonder whether there aren’t some more levels of subtleties in the research that haven’t been fully teased out that might explain the findings better.

    • Christine Carter says:

      Hard work and focus are very different than busyness. I rarely work longer than a 6 hour day, I get enough sleep, I only check my email once a day…but when I do work, I’m really efficient and focused. Yes, I’ve worked hard. And at the same time, I don’t credit any of my success to putting in long hours (because I don’t). And while I used to be plagued by busyness, I’m definitely not a workaholic! Busyness made me sick and tired, not successful.

  3. Kolya Lynne Smith says:

    I love the MED (Minimum Effective Dose) acronym, not only because I’m a medical sociologist, but because I feel like we can be more productive, if we can find that minimum amount. It also means that we don’t work longer than necessary on a single task. Or we don’t repeat a task, like compulsively checking emails. It could also remind us that we need a dose of something that’s missing from our lives, that we haven’t done in a long time. Let me share something that I had to do, in order to get more sleep. I
    thought of an idea called “Sleep Shift – 11-7” I literally had to twist
    it, so that sleeping was work. I would stay up until 1-2am trying to
    squeeze in as much as I could and my health was affected by that. My
    parents are workaholics, as are my two brothers, and I’m the youngest,
    so this has been mirrored in my life. I’m still trying to implement this into my life. But now that I’m taking your course, I feel like I can be more or completely successful at this. 🙂

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