Busy Busy Busy: Why are Americans so obsessed?

Busy Busy Busy

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.

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.


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?

Ted Bauer


  1. More workplace bull shit. My recent pharm tech job, they commented how they never had time for anything and how they worked through lunch. Right. They would grocery shop across the street. Talk for 15 minutes to customers about their pets. Leave early to fetch their damn children from daycare. Good off in the back office. Two pharmacists resigned in three weeks I had been on site. One was walked to the door. And the remaining ones, as the departed, had been employed at the same place for 12 years, the first eight being other pharmacy businesses besides Walgreens. They couldn’t work for anyone else with their trailer trash talk and behavior.

  2. “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.”

    Man, you’d think the subjective/objective line in the professional world would be more clearly defined by now. In *theory*, advances in technology have allowed us increased access to share best practices re: hiring, management, and leadership based on extensive studies, as you’ve done here; thoughtful, intelligent discussion that questions the value of outdated ideas and encourages us to use our brains to figure out better ways to run our organizations.

    In *practice*, you get some anonymous jackass on Reddit jerking themselves off in the middle of the workday about how their subjective approach to management is objectively the One True Way because they WORKED SO HARD to become a CORPORATE MIDDLE MANAGER and they DESERVE YOUR RESPECT DAMN IT (I’m about 75% “fuck Reddit, it’s a glorified message board rife with unqualified opinions and pointless flamewars” and 25% “Reddit is great” these days).

    Meanwhile I guarantee that Redditor complains about being too busy to care about their employees.

      • I go through phases with it…I’ll use it for a while, have a few decent discussions with people, and then one awful jerk will ruin it for me and I’ll need to take an extended break. I’m taking said extended break now after getting in to it with a guy who seriously claimed that the “where do you see yourself in five years” job interview question was an “excellent” way to “reveal hidden motivations” as if interviewees are criminals and he was some sort of human polygraph.

        This was rooted in his (assuming it was a dude) hyperbolic reaction to a few people demonstrating an interest in comedy as a side hustle during a job interview. Which, without the context of how he got these people to arrive at that answer (“tell me about your personal interests” perhaps prompted it, or the meaningless “tell me about your dream job” question, an inefficient inquiry that yields very little useful data about the position you’re hiring for), tells me nothing about the effectiveness of said question. If people were honestly responding “duh, I want to be a comedian” to a question about their professional goals in in the context of a business interview, then they didn’t prepare properly and probably shouldn’t get the job, but I would be shocked if that’s what went down, and would be even more surprised if it happened as much as this guy pretended it did.

        Problem is, we give credence to these hiring managers and their “awful job candidate” stories because A) it’s easier for journalists to track them down, B) we erroneously correlate their formal workplace authority with being a subject-matter expert, and C) have an insatiable urge to laugh at “fail” stories, even if the full context hasn’t been provided.

        We need to hear more from job seekers who have had to endure ridiculous and/or abusive interviews. I’d love to hear from one of the wannabe comedians who interviewed with Reddit Guy to learn about the dumb questions he asked them.

  3. Another factor that contribute’s to busy culture is not just upward mobility but also job retention. Throughout anytime in American history, save maybe the Great Depression, we live in a time of the highest job insecurity and most stagnant wage growth. But people have to be perceived as being busy to maintain their value to a company. Competition for work is fierce these days. What’s even more soul crushing, is that for all this hard work and dedication, we hardly see any reward for it. The obligatory 2% annual wage increase does very little to incite productivity.

  4. I’d argue Ted that this is all tied up with the sanctity of the American Dream. Which is increasingly looking like a product of Disney. This mythology was deemed to be valuable by business and government because it encourages citizens to aspire and work hard. Or at least it used to. As more and more people discover that just like Santa Claus, the American Dream is a fairy tale, so they resort to short-cuts and self-interest.

    Wiki sheds some light on this:

    “Research published in 2013 shows that the US provides, alongside the United Kingdom and Spain, the least economic mobility of any of 13 rich, democratic countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Blanden et al. report, “the idea of the US as ‘the land of opportunity’ persists; and clearly seems misplaced.” According to these studies, “by international standards, the United States has an unusually low level of intergenerational mobility: our parents’ income is highly predictive of our incomes as adults. Intergenerational mobility in the United States is lower than in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Research in 2006 found that among high-income countries for which comparable estimates are available, only the United Kingdom had a lower rate of mobility than the United States. Economist Isabel Sawhill concluded that “this challenges the notion of America as the land of opportunity.” Several public figures and commentators, from David Frum to Richard G. Wilkinson, have noted that the American dream is better realized in Denmark, which is ranked as having the highest social mobility in the OECD. In 2015, economist Joseph Stiglitz stated, “Maybe we should be calling the American Dream the Scandinavian Dream.”

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