Five reasons why everyone is so busy – Tony Crabbe

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Business psychologist Tony Crabbe looks at the impact of technological progress on our lives and provides five reasons why we are so busy.

It’s all too much. We have too much to do, too much information and too much pressure. Today you will consume the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of content (five times as much as you would have done in 1986).

In this world of too much, we are simultaneously overstimulated and bored, enriched and empty, connected yet isolated and alone”

In the time it will take you to read this page, 300 million emails will be sent. In the last 10 seconds, 100 people have discovered the internet and email for the first time, joining nearly three billion others, and are now adding to the noise.

We live in an age where computing power and internet connection speeds are increasing exponentially along with sheer quantity of information and entertainment. We are constantly bombarded with the “seething static” of limitless information, communication and choice. In this world of too much, we are simultaneously overstimulated and bored, enriched and empty, connected yet isolated and alone.

For information workers, the last 20 years have felt like drinking from a water fountain that has become a fire hose. As our tools for productivity improve, we produce more. As it becomes easier to communicate, we communicate more.

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For example, in 1986 the average worker produced the equivalent of 2.5 newspaper pages of content each day. In 2011 it was estimated that this amount had risen to six complete newspapers each and every day. That’s a 200-fold increase in output.

Every action we take, every email we send, has a consequence for someone else. So as we are all able to do more we create more work for others, who in turn are doing more, which means we all have more and more demands on us.

The simple fact is that “too much” is here to stay, and will worsen each year. There is an inevitability to this.

Year after year you will receive more electronic communication, be exposed to more information and be expected to be on top of more stuff.

You will receive even more emails next year. None of us is going to turn the technological clock back 30 years, and our organisations are unlikely to start saying “Relax – Don’t do as much work!”

Busyness is not essential. Yes, there is a lot to do, but believing you are always busy because you have so much to do is both false and unhelpful. This is why you are busy:

1. Busy is easier

Busy is the easy option. We are busy because we don’t make the tough choices. We allow the world and our inbox to set our agenda, rather than think for ourselves.

It’s easier to simply react; to choose to try to do everything, rather than make the difficult decisions and “un-choose” things; it takes more courage to do less.

In fact, as Ben Hunnicutt, professor of leisure studies at the University of Iowa, explains, busy is actually one of the seven deadly sins; it is slothfulness. In the Middle Ages, slothfulness had two forms: one is lazy, the other – acedia – is running about frantically. “There is no real place I’m going, but by God, I’m making great time getting there.”

2. Busy is avoidance

All those things you keep meaning to do – those things that will make a real difference in your life and career – are hard to do.

In the heat of the moment, when we have to choose between easy work and hard work, between skimming through email or grappling with that complex project, we more often than not choose the easy, busy, activity.

We throw ourselves into frenetic activity and give ourselves the perfect excuse for not doing the big-thinking stuff. In being busy we get to feel productive while procrastinating!

3. Busy is an addiction

There is a small squirt of the cocaine-like dopamine released each time you look at your email; and Google searches release opiate-like substances.

Do you reach for your first fix of email, before your first fix of caffeine each day?  Which of us hasn’t fought with the temptation to whip our phones out for a quick hit of social media or text, even when we know we shouldn’t (on average every 6.5 minutes)?

4. Busy is about time

Busy is an experience. We feel harried and overwhelmed for much of our waking moments.

So what strategy do we employ to address this? For most of us, it is time management. We believe that if we could manage our time more effectively, we’d be more in control of our life and more effective.

However, in a world of infinite demand, the more we manage our time, the more we can cram into our days. The focus on managing our time has three effects: we get more efficient, and so we do more things, and so we get busier.

Our attention narrows and so we lose the perspective needed to make good choices, and as we get better at juggling more, our attention gets scattered and diffuse, meaning we don’t appreciate anything.

If we want to achieve calmer, more effective and happier lives, time management is not the solution. In fact, it’s making things worse.

5. Busy is a (rubbish) success strategy

For the whole of human history we have been living in a world of scarcity. When there is too little, we constantly strive for more. Whether food, stuff or information, we try to get as much as we can.

This applies in the workplace too.

The basic principle of agriculture, manufacturing and even office life has been the more the better. So we play the “more” game. We assume that personal productivity is what will deliver success.

However, in a world of too much, the last thing we need is more of anything. When everyone is so overwhelmed, the biggest scarcity is attention.

In order to succeed, in your career or in a business, you have to cut through the noise and be noticed.

In focusing on doing more things and being more productive, the big stuff – the thinking and the creativity – gets squeezed out.

We have become drudges, too busy to lift our heads and do the things we know will make an impact and differentiate ourselves. We don’t need to be more productive; we need to do less, better.

This is an adapted excerpt from Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much by Tony Crabbe. Reproduced with permission from Piatkus Publishing.

Tony Crabbe

About Tony Crabbe

Tony Crabbe is a business psychologist who works with companies such as Microsoft, Disney and HSBC.
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