Skip to main content

Get Ahead by Doing Less: Being Busy Hurts Your Creativity and Makes You Less Effective

Multi-tasking is a myth. We need to focus on one job at a time to do it right.

Multi-tasking is a myth. We need to focus on one job at a time to do it right.

Joining "The Cult of Being Busy"

Do you know someone who's constantly talking about how busy she is—whether it's true or not. I've known a person like that my entire life—my 78-year-old mother. Even as she recovers from a stroke at home, she's still telling anyone who'll listen how busy she is (doing exactly what is unclear). It turns out her compulsion to present herself as an industrious person is not unusual in American society today where staying occupied takes precedence over thinking, learning, reading, and reflecting.

Billionaire investor, Warren Buffet, is one of many successful individuals who's now speaking up about the value of not overloading our lives. He spends 80% of his work day reading and thinking—not constantly doing— and credits this for his enormous success. So, with more research showing the importance of downtime to stimulate creativity and innovation, why do so many people insist on keeping up their frantic pace?

A mind that is racing over worries about the future or recycling resentments from the past is ill equipped to handle the challenges of the moment. By slowing down, we can train the mind to focus completely in the present. Then we will find that we can function well whatever the difficulties. That is what it means to be stress-proof: not avoiding stress but being at our best under pressure, calm, cool, and creative in the midst of the storm.

— Eknath Easwaran

Needing to Feel Significant by Being Busy

Some overly busy people, motivated by insecurities, need to make themselves look important to the world. Others use being occupied as an excuse to avoid things they don't wish to do. Author, Scott Berkun, has dubbed this phenomenon “the cult of being busy." He reminds us that being overly industrious actually decreases our productivity and stifles creativity.

Recalling decades of phone conversations between my mother and me, I see clearly now how she measured her worthiness by how industrious she was. During each chat, she felt compelled to list all that she had done recently, all that she was doing currently, and all that she would be doing. When asking about me, she'd never say, "how are you doing? but always, "what are you doing? The not-so-subtle message being: You are what you do.

This notion of you are what you do is prevalent in child-rearing today as parents sign their youngsters up for every sport, art class, and music lesson under the sun, chauffeur them from one activity to another, and then complain how exhausted they are. Research shows that over-scheduling our kids is harmful, but parents persist. It's all part of “the cult of being busy” that stems from profound insecurity. Parents overbook their kids because they can't deal with the anxiety that's created from not overbooking them. They can't stomach the idea that their kid might be less likely to succeed, lose the competitive edge, and fall behind her peers. If Molly Smith's mother signs her daughter up for three dance classes a week—jazz, hip-hop, and ballet—Janie Jones's mother thinks: I better sign up Janie for the same three or, better yet, even more!

Stop and take time to sharpen the saw—the saw being you—yes, you are the most important too in your toolbox.

— Maureen Hewitt

Talking While Walking Really Makes Us Feel Powerful and Significant

Cell phones are the must-have accessory for those who need to appear busy.

Cell phones are the must-have accessory for those who need to appear busy.

Having a Ready Excuse by Being So Busy

It doesn't take a degree in psychology to understand people brag about being busy because they're insecure. They're trying to prove to the world and to themselves how important they are. Go to any restaurant—five-star or fast food—and you'll see people constantly checking their phones for new emails or texts, even while dining with their spouses or dates. If they receive a call during the meal, they'll probably take it—not because the call itself is important, but because it makes them feel important. In this way, cell phones have become the greatest accessory for members in “the cult of being busy.”

Many self-proclaimed busy people such as my mother have their entire identities wrapped up in staying occupied. Being on-the-go means more to them than being intelligent, well-read, spiritually enlightened, or contemplative. Scott Berkun writes:

When I was younger I thought busy people were more important than everyone else. Otherwise why would they be so busy? I had busy bosses, busy parents, and always I just thought they must have really important things to do. It seemed an easy way to see who mattered and who didn’t. The busy must matter more, and the lazy mattered less.

That's exactly how I felt about my mother when I was a kid. In my young eyes, she was an important person who mattered because she was always saying how busy she was. It wasn't until I was 38—holding down a part-time job and mothering a toddler with autism and a newborn—that I finally called crap on my retired mother when she constantly said how busy she was. The reality became all too clear; being busy was her way to feel superior and to avoid doing things she didn't want to do such as helping out with her grandkids. People put time and effort into what matters to them and, clearly, my kids didn't matter to her. While coming to terms with that was painful, it was also very liberating. I was finally able to accept the truth about my mother and no longer fight it. Scott Berkun writes:

The phrase 'I don’t have time for' should never be said. We all get the same amount of time every day. If you can’t do something it’s not about the quantity of time. It’s really about how important the task is to you. I’m sure if you were having a heart attack, you’d magically find time to go to the hospital. That time would come from something else you’d planned to do, but now seems less important. This is how time works all the time. What people really mean when they say 'I don’t have time' is this thing is not important enough to earn my time. It’s a polite way to tell people they’re not worth your time.

Over-Scheduling Their Kids Is Bad, But Parents Do It to Keep Up With the Competition

Over-scheduling kids is harmful, but insecure parents do it any way.

Over-scheduling kids is harmful, but insecure parents do it any way.

Slowing down is sometimes the best way to speed up.

— Mike Vance

Being Overly Busy Decreases Productivity

Older folks, such as my mother, who grew up in religious homes, often heard the saying: “Idle hands are the devil's workshop.” It commands people to work hard as a way to avoid sin. However, new research shows downtime is extremely valuable while being overly busy is harmful and counter-productive.

K. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University, has studied how people reach high levels of competence. Contrary to what many in “the culture of being busy” believe, Ericsson found that people learn more efficiently when they limit focused practice to only an hour and then follow it with a break. Both adults and children benefit from mental breaks during their work and school days. After that interval, we are more focused, more creative, and less stressed. Scott Berkun sums it up perfectly:

I deliberately try not to fill my calendar. I choose not to say Yes to everything. For to do so would make me too busy, and I think, less effective at what my goals are. I always want to have some margin of my time in reserve, time I’m free to spend in any way I choose, including doing almost nothing at all. I’m free to take detours. I’m open to serendipity. Some of the best thinkers throughout history had some of their best thoughts while going for walks, playing cards with friends, little things that generally would not be considered the hallmarks of busy people. It’s the ability to pause, to reflect, and relax, to let the mind wander, that’s perhaps the true sign of time mastery, for when the mind returns it’s often sharper and more efficient, but most important perhaps, happier than it was before.

Scroll to Continue

Final Thoughts

People who constantly say how busy they are need to feel important. They may use being industrious as an excuse to avoid doing things they don't wish to do. The rest of us must accept that they won't change because their identities are too tied with being occupied. We can, however, learn from those members in "the cult of being busy" so we don't wind up like them—overloaded people defined by our insecurities. By doing activities such as spending time in nature, exercising, and meditating, we boost our productivity, heighten our creativity, and increase our happiness. This is far more valuable than anything on a to-do list.

I Was Sinking Fast and This Book Gave Me a Lifeline

© 2015 McKenna Meyers


McKenna Meyers (author) on January 08, 2016:

Yes, research now shows that scheduling time to do nothing is actually more productive in the long run. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Kendra Dobson on January 08, 2016:

I try to keep a balance between keeping busy and scheduling time to "do nothing." Great Hub. Thanks for writing!

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 22, 2015:

That's so insightful, Nate: People get their identities wrapped around anything they can to hide from themselves. I'm going to use that as my mantra during my mom's visit as she continues to tell me how busy she is!

Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on December 22, 2015:

Totally agree. I noticed many years ago the ego-centered tendency to brag about being busy or looking important by appearing busy. People get their identities wrapped around anything they can to hide from themselves.

McKenna Meyers (author) on December 15, 2015:

That's interesting, Will. I've suffered from depression in the past and, you're right, doing even the smallest things is a huge effort.

We could never figure out why my mom was always so busy. She'd give the vague answer "doing paperwork." It turns out this paperwork was sorting through her heaps of mail -- legitimate stuff, junk mail, and charities. She gives small amounts to lots of charities so she receives hundreds of letters from them. This makes her feel very important. Most of us would just put it all in the recycling bin, but she opens and reads each one! It takes her hours!

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Will Apse on December 15, 2015:

My mother is similar. Always saying how busy she is. I put it down to the fact that she always struggled with depression so doing anything at all is a big thing. She needs to struggle to be busy so that she does not sink.

I would put some more options in your downtime quiz, by the way. I smoke or lie down.

I am not saying this is healthy, lol.

Related Articles