Why are Americans so obsessed with how busy they are?

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Busy busy busy.

That’s the American way — and especially around the holidays. (But, let’s be honest: it’s the American way a lot of other times too.) I’ve written about this stuff a lot. Here’s a few samples:

Sorry for five links, but you know — I’ve been busy busy busy writing about being, well, busy busy busy. Of those links, the most important is probably the last one. It absolutely buries work at most places. Being busy usually means checking boxes. There’s often no tie to ROI, no tie to company goals/priorities, and maybe not even a tie to what your manager assigned you. But you’re busy — and you’ll tell everyone in an 11-mile radius how busy you are. We all know these people and, quite frankly, we’ve probably all been this person too. Busy busy busy.

In American offices, if you’re not busy all the time, do you even exist?

Now we’ve got some new research on why Americans love us some busy, busy, busy people. What can we learn?

The busy busy busy research

This is all from an article entitled “Research: Why Americans Are Impressed By Busyness.” Let’s be honest here. You’re probably too busy to read it, so I’ll summarize a few points for you. It’s based on a series of different experiments, and here’s the essential takeaway:

In general, we found that the busy person is perceived as high status, and interestingly, these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility. In other words, the more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing. To measure beliefs in social mobility, we use the perceived social mobility scale (Bjørnskov et al. 2013) measuring the degree to which people view society as mobile and believe that work leads to success (e.g., “Hard work brings success in the long run,” “People have a chance to escape poverty”).

Here’s the bouncing ball. “Work is virtue” (somewhat BS), so someone that is always busy, busy, busy must be working hard. That means they’re a virtuous person, and potentially one with a lot of social mobility. OK. I get the logic. But how did we get here?

How did we arrive at this cultural spot?

Here’s what the article claims:

What has changed so dramatically in one century? We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status.

I agree with that. I’d add this, too. A lot of work is about “I don’t want to seem incompetent” and “I want to seem relevant.” At that intersection point, it’s more valuable to worry about the quantity of work you do — as opposed to the quality of that work. With so many people you meet at work, it’s more important to have a lot of things to do — and be able to tell people about it — then to actually do good work. It’s literally stunning to watch. This, of course, is an off-shoot of how a lot of managers are. Managers tend to care about being seen as good, but also busy busy busy — and having control. A lot of times, you can turn in a project with absolutely no value to anyone, but if the manager feels he/she controlled the process end-to-end in a way that made them comfortable, it will be seen as “a good project.” Again, absolutely stunning to watch in real time.

The point of work is supposed to be doing things well, getting paid for them, the company succeeding, you succeeding, and so on. When/why is it so much about how busy you are?

Busy busy busy and people’s fears

You’ve got the stuff about about incompetence and relevance. That’s very palpable. Then you’ve got automation coming down the pike. No one knows what to expect, but a lot of people secretly know their job isn’t that hard. It could probably be done by a robot. But then how will you eat? So if you pound your chest about how important and slammed you are, does that stave off the fear about the future and your kids’ future for a bit? Maybe. That’s one aspect.

Other factors:

  • Unclear job roles are common at a lot of companies. If you don’t know exactly what to do all day, it’s better than nada to tell everyone how busy busy busy you are.
  • Priority management is a joke at most firms, so ditto.
  • Being busy makes you feel high (scroll up)
  • A lot of work assigned in a knowledge economy is subjective; like you do a proposal or analysis of key factors, and maybe 1 boss loves it and 1 boss hates it. If you’re making widgets on an assembly line, that’s a lot less subjective. As work became more subjective, we needed factors to control — hence our focus on how busy we are.
  • It keeps real work away from you. If you always tell people how slammed you are, they usually don’t heap new stuff on your plate. That means you can surf Facebook half the day and no one will really know. (This is also an advantage of bureaucracy.)
  • It prevents you from having to help others/train them
  • If your boss totally sucks and doesn’t respect you, you can look at the amount of time you put in — busy busy busy! — and respect yourself

Can we fix this culture?

Absolutely not. It’s an individual, micro-level thing. If people want to feel busy and constantly talk about being busy busy busy, well then … OK. Consider a stat like this: most middle managers are busy. They gotta keep those trains moving! Well, 21.4 million of them are contributing no economic value back to their company. That costs the U.S. about $3 trillion per year in lost productivity. That’s the busy busy busy culture. There’s no ROI, no productivity, and no targets hit — but because it makes people feel better about themselves, we allow it to persist. This is why you’d hope middle management is going away eventually, but it’s probably not.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial BS we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

Here’s another one: largely because of productivity hits, bad leadership costs companies about $144,000 per day. That’s the annual salary of a lot of SVPs, and we’re losing that daily because the productivity isn’t there. Why? Because everyone cares about being busy busy busy — and honestly could care less about quality, productive work so long as the paycheck and health insurance is still there. Sad.

Typically, as with anything at companies, this begins because the top levels model it. Most of what senior execs do is sit in meetings, build relationships, and fly around talking to clients and vendors. They have a lot of responsibility, but maybe don’t invest in tons of action. What do they say to anyone/anything in earshot? “I put in 88 hours last week, Kevin! I’m slammed!” It’s all bullshit. 55 hours/week is a hard ceiling on productivity and we’ve known that for years, but we let these guys start the busy busy culture. And then, the rest of us just follow it for years. Quantity > quality. Busy > productive. Work in 2017.

Busy busy busy. What else would you add?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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