For most of my working life, I’ve felt way too busy. Sometimes heart-stoppingly, wildly so — working long hours, missing out on family time or fun, and stressed beyond belief. And yet, a few years ago, as I was cleaning out my file cabinet before leaving the Washington Post after nearly 20 years, I found folder after folder of half-reported stories that would have been good. Really good. If only I hadn’t been too busy to actually work on them.
In the years since, I’ve thought about that moment with a mix of shame and regret. I largely blamed myself for not making the time to do more ambitious, high-priority work, or managing to get it all done within reasonable hours and have more time for life. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see how I was trapped in a busyness tunnel.
During the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on a project with researchers from ideas42 (a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve real world problems) to explore whether behavioral science design can help solve issues of work-life conflict. Our research finds that this conflict — which is a potent cause of stress and a key contributor to increases in poor health, a drop off in productivity and the stall in gender equality — is largely the result of how workers experience busyness.
And perhaps most importantly, we’ve concluded ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on our own. The most promising solutions are at the organizational, not the personal, level.
How Workers Experience Work-Life Conflict
It’s taken some time to get to these insights. In the first phase of the project, researchers with ideas42 spent about a year working with three different nonprofit philanthropic organizations around the country. They made a couple of site visits to interview and observe the work styles of workers, managers, and leaders; the work culture; and how people interacted with their work environment to better understand the factors that drive work-life conflict. In the current phase, ideas42 scoped out five other nonprofit organizations and are working with three that have committed to design and test specific behavioral interventions to try to reduce it.
As we reviewed some of the most recent site work, I was struck by one powerful disconnect that came up over and over again: At virtually every organization, everyone interviewed said that work-life balance — the ability to work effectively and have time for a fulfilling and healthy life outside of work — is a core value of the organization. And yet, every organization (including ideas42 and the Better Life Lab, the nonprofit program I now direct) struggles to live that value. Emails can fly at all hours. Work spills into nights, weekends, vacations, hospital waiting rooms, and family celebrations. People are feeling burned out. And yet despite this, many workers very publicly wear this overworked, overly busy work martyrdom like a badge of honor. At one organization, workers said they felt that no one should work more than 45 hours a week. Yet the typical employee actually works more than 52.
Mission driven non-profits face a particular challenge. Workers there often think that their work is so important that it matters more than their compensation, health, or work-life balance — in fact, one recent study found that as many as half of all nonprofit employees are either burned out or on the verge of it. On the site visits, some workers said that, while they saw the benefit of work-life balance, they worked to the point of exhaustion because they love what they do. “We think [our work is] important, so it creates a disincentive in some ways to turn it off,” one participant told us. “If we all hated our jobs, it would be much easier to create work-life balance.”
Leaders didn’t fare much better. While they expressed a desire for better work-life balance — if not for themselves, at least for the rest of their staff — they were often among the worst offenders, texting at 9 PM, emailing over the weekend or at night, and rarely taking vacation. Some leaders weren’t even aware how what they did (overwork) undermined what they said they believed (that work-life balance is important). Others leaders knew they weren’t walking the talk: “We do a poor job modeling work-life balance,” said one.
I realized then that really creating better work-life effectiveness would require more than just telling people to log out of email at night. Everyone at these work sites knew what they should be doing, but actually doing it was a different story. So whatever behavioral interventions researchers designed would have to address workplace cultures trapped in a broader busyness paradox.
The Busyness Paradox, Explained
Here’s how the busyness paradox works: When we’re busy and have that high-octane, panicked feeling that time is scarce — what one participant called the “sustained moment of hecticness” through the work day — our attention and ability to focus narrows. Behavioral researchers call this phenomenon “tunneling.” And, like being in a tunnel, we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front of us. (Research has found we actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state.) We run around putting out fires all day, racing to meetings, ploughing through emails, and getting to 5 or 6 PM with the sick realization that we haven’t even started our most important work of the day.
So we stay late at the office, or take work home in the evenings or weekends, and effectively steal time for work away from the rest of our lives. “If you’re in this firefighting state of time pressure and tunneling, you’re not making time to meet long-term goals. You’re not dealing with any of the root causes that led to the firefighting in the first place,” said Matthew Darling, ideas42 vice president and project lead. “The tendency is to do the stuff that’s easy to check off. That’s all you have the bandwidth for.” Tunneling and busyness are mutually reinforcing, Darling added. “Focusing on short-term tasks makes you not make strategic plans, which causes you to be busy.”
In theory, workers could just ignore any work they didn’t complete before, say, 5 PM, and call it a day. But it’s hard to break out of the tunnel now: Unlike a century ago, when Americans showed their status in leisure time, busyness has become the new badge of honor. So even as we bemoan workplaces where everyone is busy and no one is productive, busyness has actually become the way to signal dedication to the job and leadership potential. One reason for this is is that, while productivity is relatively easy to measure on a factory floor, or on the farm, we have yet to develop good metrics for measuring the productivity of knowledge workers. So we largely rely on hours worked and face time in the office as markers for effort, and with the advent of technology and the ability to work remotely, being connected and responsive at all hours is the new face time. “Tunneling” is no longer something that happens by accident,” Darling explained. “It’s a condition that workers are forced into by standard management practices.”
So how can behavioral science interventions begin to nudge this powerful busyness bias that keeps us all so stressed out?
One key will be to construct new mental models of the ideal worker. Right now, the model is someone who comes in early, eats lunch at their desk, stays late, emails at all hours, is always busy and always available to put work first — a definition that excludes anyone with caregiving responsibilities (which, in the U.S., is primarily women) or the desire for a healthy work-life balance.
So the interventions ideas42 are designing to improve work effectiveness and work-life balance may also wind up nudging the idea that an ideal worker in the 21st century is someone who does great work, is well-rested and healthy, and has a great life outside of work — not someone who’s trapped in the busy tunnel, chasing their tail, thinking small and on the road to burn out. These interventions are designed with the very foundation of behavioral science in mind: that human decision-making is shaped not by individual personality or willpower, but by the environment.
3 Ways to Break Your Employees Out of the Busyness Paradox
Recognize the power of social signals. When we’re at work, all we see are other people working. And when we see late-night emails or texts, we assume that our coworker or boss has been working all day or night without interruption, when perhaps they’d been out walking the dog or having dinner with their families. But that life outside work doesn’t register because we don’t see it. (More, we often don’t want to share our lives outside work with coworkers and bosses in order to preserve the busyness myththat we are always working.)
“You end up miscalibrating,” Darling explained, or thinking that people are working more than they actually are, so you automatically think you have to as well in order to keep up. Researchers point to a classic study of such “norm misperception” and how prevalent and damaging it can be: one nationwide survey found that a large share of college students overestimated the amount of alcohol their peers consumed. Over time, the best predictor for how much students wound up drinking was how much they thought their peers were drinking, even though, in reality, their peers weren’t drinking that much.
To correct that “always-on” misperception, researchers at ideas42 are testing the idea of making non-work time more visible. They’re asking managers to be more open about: taking lunch breaks, leaving the office on time, working flexibly, going on vacation, talking about life outside of work or care responsibilities, and more demonstrably encouraging others to do the same — potentially even including life events on shared calendars. Another experiment involves automatic reminders. These reminders would go out at the beginning of every year and would prompt people to schedule their vacations.
Researchers are also working with teams to design email, phone, and texting protocols to cut down or eliminate work communication outside of normal hours, particularly from leaders who set expectations for everyone else. Behavior might be tracked and made transparent so that, through the powerful nudge of social comparison, people and leaders would be held accountable and the new systems more likely to stick.
Build in slack for important work. Humans are terrible at estimating how much time and effort are actually needed to accomplish things. It’s called the planning fallacy, and the busyness paradox only exacerbates that tendency to underestimate and overpromise. So one intervention being tested is for workers to intentionally create slack in their calendars every week — in other words, intentionally schedule a block of slack time to finish up any work that got delayed after an emergency popped up, or to finish a project that took longer than you thought it would. The team at ideas42 came up with the idea based on a study of hospital operating rooms that found leaving one room unused for emergencies, rather than booking to 100% capacity, actually increased the number of surgical cases and revenue while cutting down on staff overwork
Another idea is to create “transition days” at work before and after vacations, where the only expectation of workers would be to wrap up work before leaving, and catch up on what they missed while they were out. That would give workers a better chance of truly unplugging and recharging during vacation, and help people ease back into work after. People won’t feel as compelled to answer emails throughout for fear of falling behind, or dread juggling the awaiting inbox with immediate work demands. “You almost always need a lot more slack than you think you will,” Darling explained, “and it is actually markedly important for doing good work.”
Slack time requires a new mental model — recognizing that, no matter how carefully we plan, work emergencies and unexpected demands will always crop up and projects and tasks will usually require more time than we’ve allocated. So creating blank space isn’t slacking off (pun intended); it’s time that enables you to get your most important work done effectively and keeping it from spilling over into the rest of your life.
Increase transparency into everyone’s workload. Many people participating in our project felt they were always busy — going to meetings, answering emails, collaborating with others — but not necessarily productive. They found it difficult to find chunks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on a big project, much less plan or think or strategize. Some even said they used their paid time off just to have a day of uninterrupted, independent work.
So one intervention ideas42 researchers are experimenting with is an effort to “concretize” work by actually scheduling in time to work on the week’s priorities and making actual workloads transparent to bosses and coworkers. The thinking is that that transparency is likely to create positive friction every time someone wants to call a meeting. With priority work made more transparent, calling a meeting won’t be seen as cost free, but a values trade-off: what is everyone not doing because they’re at this meeting? And is the meeting the better use of everyone’s time?
Another idea involves “meeting hygiene” — can meetings become more efficient with a required agenda, limited time, and concrete action plan? Researchers may also test meeting and email black out days to encourage concentrated work time.
In the end, the hope is that these interventions will help people begin to act their way into a new way of thinking. If they see they can work more effectively and have a healthier work-life balance, perhaps instead of praising people who brag about being super busy and working all the time, they’ll begin to think: If workers aren’t getting their most important work done, are on the verge of burnout, and have little time for life, what needs to change at this organization?