by Dr Kathryn Owler
Did you know that busyness is a recent phenomenon? Studies have shown that the more affluent a society gets, the `busier’ people feel. In New Zealand busyness has become a habit. As Christmas approaches just watch the busy frenzy get into full swing! According to research evidence however, busyness is one habit that could be well worth kicking for everyone’s sake!
As New Zealander’s we carry busyness as a badge of honor. We assume that if we are busy we must have a lot of important things to do. However, some experts argue that busyness is a state of mind rather than merely an activity. They argue that we are so busy being busy, that we may have lost sight of what is important to us. It is interesting that in Russia, the word for busyness is the same as for the word `vanity’. Far from signaling productivity, it implies and empty, unproductive spending of time, `something like walking on a treadmill’ (Greenfeld 2005).
So why are New Zealanders all so busy being busy? Some people argue that busyness results from all the options that we have in developed countries. In countries like New Zealand most of us have an incredible range of choices including how to fill our days, what job or career to pursue, what foods to buy, what car to drive and what sort of person to be and so on. We can end up spending so much time and energy negotiating these choices that we get caught up in `doing, doing, doing’.
Busyness has become so engrained in both our leisure and work lives, that it is hard to imagine a life that is not busy. Because of the choices open to us, we feel we have less time than we ever had to do all the things we want to do. One U.S. study showed that today American’s have somewhat less work time and more free time than they had in the 1960’s.This counters popular arguments that there is a `time famine’ in the West. Despite the fact they have more free time than ever, American’s still believe that life is becoming more rushed (Sheuerman 2005). Given the similarity in culture, the same is likely to be true in New Zealand.
Work also seems to get busier and busier. Technology is partly responsible for this, making it possible to cram more into an hour than ever before. Email is a great example, having made it possible for us to constantly multi-task. In the past, enquiries came to us via a phone call or snail mail. The expectation for returning such enquiries was a few days to a week. However emails have made it possible for us to answer a query almost immediately and people have come to expect this. Emails also constantly pop into our in-box while we are working away at some other task. This makes it very difficult to concentrate for an extended period on one thing. Checking one email when it comes in for instance during another task has been shown to distract us for 5 minutes from the original task. In addition to email, laptops, mobile phones and blackberries now enable us to do work anywhere, any time. This makes for so many more potential opportunities for us to be `busy’ doing work.
Busyness also has an impact on our physical and emotional health. In his recent book Thrilled to Death, Dr H. Heart argues that the myriad of choices and the constant excitement and activity that we experience, particularly as young people, can cause a variety of stress disorders. Heart argues that stimulation is not necessarily a good thing. The over-stimulation our children are experiencing can mean they lose the capacity to experience pleasure in the small things in life.
Heart explains that down-time can be more productive than busyness in the end. For children in particular, boredom can provide the space and time for real creativity. When children have few toys, they can create endless fun and interest for themselves. They might also day-dream, imagine possibilities and think a lot about what they might do in the future. It is also during such `down-time’ that adults often have the best insights or make the most important discoveries. It is a well known fact that the famed mathematician Archimedes made one of his greatest discoveries in the bath – EUREKA!
There is much talk at the moment about the current world financial crisis. Business is already feeling the impact and some redundancies have taken place. It is easy during such periods to become anxious. With less work on, we look for ways to fill the gaps and become `busy’ again. There is always a silver lining to any cloud however. Perhaps one of the opportunities that the current crisis provides is the opportunity to stop and assess who we are and what is important to us. This is true at both a personal level and at the level of business organization. If we have been made redundant, are in work, a Manager or a Business Owner this may be the time to jump off the busyness treadmill and construct a measured and truly productive way forward.