Why is everyone so busy?

Written by Carl Davidson, Director of Strategy and Insight, Research First

If you’re like most people, you probably get to the end of the day wondering where the hours went. Equally, you probably struggle to remember the last time you had a conversation that didn’t involve someone talking about how busy they were.

The expression ‘time-poor’ emerged towards the end of the twentieth-century and it seems to undeniably describe modern living. For those who like to supersize their maladies, there is the notion of ‘hurry sickness’. According to Psychology Today, this describes a pattern of behaviour characterised by “continual rushing and anxiousness; an overwhelming and continual sense of urgency [where] a person feels chronically short of time”. If you easily get frustrated with delays, you probably have it. And if a slow internet connection enrages you, then you definitely do. But it could be worse, in Japan there is a condition known as ‘karoshi’, which translates roughly as ‘death from overwork’.

A quick search of Google reveals that there are two broad responses to this escalation of busyness in our lives. The first response is all about finding ways to use our time more effectively and efficiently. It’s hard to escape the impression that this is billion dollar industry, with a seemingly endless selection of tools, apps, books, and training course to make us all more productive. The second response involves some measure of unplugging from modern life. In this corner we have an equally impressive array of people and products promising to help us downshift, declutter, and disengage.

Not for the first time (and with apologies to Anthony Giddens), social science suggests there is a third way. This response starts from the counterintuitive point that our lives aren’t really any busier than they were in the past.

Despite how it might seem, the evidence is clear that New Zealanders in paid employment work fewer hours, on average, than they did in 2001. Equally, the data we have about leisure time (or what social scientists call ‘time spent free of obligation and necessity’) shows no decrease over the last 20 years.

How we spend our leisure time has definitely changed (more time in front of screens and less time in organised sport), as have the parts week that get counted as ‘leisure’, but it’s not getting any scarcer.

It’s true that these are general patterns drawn from averages and your mileage may vary. But the argument is stronger if we reverse it: there is no evidence that we are more ‘time-poor’ than in the past. This in itself is a remarkable insight.

It is also the kind of paradox that social scientists love. Clearly being ‘time-poor’ or having a dose of ‘hurry-sickness’ is real for many people (and it’s particularly hard to fake karoshi). Yet the cause must lie in something other than an objective intensification of everyday life.

The answer seems to be in how perceive our time in the context of the number of ways we have of spending it. What the world we live in clearly does is magnify the conflict between the parts of our brains that crave novelty and fear loss. This is then further magnified by the rapid diffusion of digital technology. No matter what you are doing, there is a world of distraction just a click away.

In this context, choosing to do just one thing, no matter how worthy, means not doing any number of others. Even where you like the choice you have made, the act of discounting the alternatives creates stress. As does second-guessing your choices by thinking about the more productive ways you could have used your time. In this regard we are all like Proust, in search of lost time.

But life is too short and Proust is too long to live this way. The view from the social sciences is that the key to overcoming hurry sickness is to place more value on our time. Doing so will help arrest the tendency many of us have to be easily distracted. Here what matters is not so much how to save time but how to spend our attention.

Because, to paraphrase Annie Dillard – ‘how we spend our hours is, of course, how we spend our lives’.

Research First is PRINZ’s research partner, and specialises in impact measurement, behaviour change, and evidence-based insights.