When exactly did busyness become a sign of status?

When exactly did “busyness” become a status? At work, in our personal lives and online, the competition to “live our best lives” and “hustle harder” is being taken to the extreme. Neuroscientists refer to busyness as a state of “cognitive overload.” This state can hinder our productivity, as well as our abilities to think clearly, plan and control our emotions. In the early 1990s, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by 2028, living conditions would improve so much that the working day would shrink to three or four hours. However, it is now 2019 and we are busier than ever.

From the 5 am gym sessions to the glitzy and seemingly effortless ability to maintain a career, a side hustle, a relationship and a social life, we’re continually conditioned to think that we must have it all. But, why do we buy into it?

Is it the media, and the likes of Elon Musk, tweeting that “nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week”? Is it our workplaces that partake in the glorification of stretching-ourselves-too-thin, and employers who reward employees for putting in a late-night slog? Or is it ourselves, striving to meet our own unachievably high expectations in order to find meaning or purpose in our lives?

[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A busy mindset enhances our self-importance which in turn can enhance our self-control[/perfectpullquote]

The truth is, busyness might be a state of mind people simply prefer to be in. One study has shown that a busy mindset enhances our self-importance which in turn can enhance our self-control. For example, people who were busy were less likely to choose an indulgent food option and were also more likely to save or wait longer for a larger monetary reward.

So, is busyness really such a problem?

The issue is, the glorification of being busy, especially in a work sense, can encourage unhealthy habits such as losing sight of our priorities outside of work and preventing our ability to just say no. As a recent article in the NY Times pointed out, “it’s not difficult to view hustle culture as a swindle. After all, convincing a generation of workers to beaver away is convenient for those at the top.”

Who, therefore, is really benefitting from this relentless way of living?

With the constant pressures of everyday life, combined with technology that enables us to always be switched on, it is unsurprising that the glamorisation of overworking inevitably leads to burnout. What is even more terrifying is that our obsession with quantifying productivity and performance means that we are slowly becoming dehumanised. The questions many decision makers are asking before incorporating an employee wellness plan is not “how much can this benefit the health and wellbeing of my employees”, but rather “what will the company get out of this, in terms of productivity, performance and profit?” If perks such as on-site gym classes and free food are designed to encourage employees to spend more time at work, then what message does this really send?

The catch 22 is that the more time and energy we dedicate to work, the more easily we give up the things that actually help us to relax and de-stress. Marie Asberg, a professor at the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm, describes burnout as the ‘exhaustion funnel’.

“Often, the very first things we give up are those that nourish us the most but are seen as ‘optional’”, say Mark Williams and Danny Penman, authors of Mindfulness. “The result is that we are increasingly left with only work and other stressors that often deplete our resources, and nothing to replenish or nourish us – and exhaustion is the result”.

So, the question is, how can we regain control of our endlessly busy lives?

Well, there are a number of ways:

  • Mindfulness and meditation have significant benefits in helping us to focus more on the task in hand and get us into our flow.
  • Say no more often. It’s far easier to take back a “No” than take back a “Yes”.
  • Schedule a rest day and safeguard it.
  • Switch your phone to airplane mode and train yourself to have a break from it.
  • “I don’t have time” is usually another way of saying “It’s not a priority”. Take the time to re-evaluate what is important to you.

Hopefully, we won’t all burn out before we realise that this struggle culture is an unobtainable delusion. Even Michelle Obama said, “That whole ‘so you can have it all’. Nope, not at the same time.”


Francesca Langton Kendall is a WorkWell consultant at Making Moves, a commercial property startup based in Shoreditch. She is currently studying towards an MSc in Workplace Health and Wellbeing and consults clients on how they can make their workplaces better. This includes the physical office environment and ways in which they can help to promote healthy habits, the wellbeing of their staff and a positive, inclusive culture.