Busy People Seem Important, but How Do They Feel?

Perpetual busyness is a global issue. Is it good for us?

Posted Jan 02, 2020

It’s a new year and a new decade, so people all over the world are coming up with resolutions or intentions for how they will approach 2020. Many of these changes will focus on diet, exercise, and spending habits. Perhaps it’s time for us to also consider how we schedule and spend our time.

I’m writing this post from Dubai, a buzzing metropolis with many things to see and do. As a result, people around the city are always swapping stories about how busy and chaotic their schedules are. They are not alone: Perpetual busyness is a global phenomenon. This raises two important questions: 1) How did it become this way? And 2) Is it doing more harm than good? Let’s review the psychological science.

The way we look at time use has really changed. We used to admire people who had a lot of free time. They were seen as having enough wealth and status that they did not need to work. Now, the inverse is true: We view a jam-packed schedule as a sign of wealth and status. Further, we believe that people who spend their time working as opposed to engaging in leisure activities are more important and impressive.

Keinan, Bellezza, and Paharia (2019) explored this issue in a recent study. They found that “busy” people — those with long hours of remunerated employment who spend much more time working than doing leisure activities — were perceived to be more in-demand, ambitious, and determined. 

Interestingly, “busy” people were also seen to be less happy. And yet, participants in Keinan et al. (2019)’s research still wanted to project a “busy” image. It seems that the positive associations of being “busy” — in-demand, ambitious, and determined — were more important than the negative associations of being less happy.

Source: Pixabay

What does this pursuit of busyness look like in real life? Many people will fill their calendar and continuously add to their to-do lists. Hitting goals and accomplishing tasks can be quite adaptive. It can fill us with a sense of accomplishment, which further fuels us to keep taking on more tasks. 

Brene Brown, Professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, argues that we also jam-pack our schedules to numb our emotions. Essentially, we avoid dealing with the difficult things in our lives by throwing ourselves headfirst into work.

Ultimately, “busyness” and overwork catch up to us. People who push themselves for too long become exhausted, depleted, and fatigued. They often report symptoms of depression, anxiety, and burnout.

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate how you use your time and why.

Here are some suggestions for how to slow down and connect with your emotions:

1. Create technology-free zones and technology-free times. We are always accessible, whether it’s by email, phone call, or text message. In addition to being on-call around the clock, digital distractions create challenges in our personal relationships. Recent research found that social interactions were much less satisfying when others are distracted by technology. Consider setting some boundaries around when and where you will respond to your phone and emails.

2. Break down your schedule and pencil in some leisure time. Look at how you are using your time and make a deliberate decision to incorporate some leisure time, even if it is just a few minutes each day. Do not wait until the ‘perfect’ time presents itself - it never will.

3. Make some micro-changes at work. You may not have the luxury to take a leisurely lunch with colleagues, but you can still make small changes around the office. Take a short lunch break away from your desk. Do you have access to an outdoor space? If so, go there. Research shows that being in nature (Bratman, Hamilton, Hahn, Daily, & Gross, 2015) or simply looking at it from a window can be calming (van den Berg, Maas, Muller, Braun, Kaandorp, van Lien, et al., 2015) - this is also a more reasonable solution in the Gulf's scorching summer months.

4. Connect with your emotions. Embrace rather than escape your emotions. Expressing them can be cathartic, whether it’s to a trusted loved one or professional, or through a creative medium.


Keinan, A., Bellezza, S., & Paharia, N. (2019). The symbolic value of time. Current Opinions in Psychology, April 2019, 58-61DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2018.05.001

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. C. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. PNAS, June 2015, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1510459112.

van den Verg, M. M. H. E., Maas, J., Muller, R., Braun, A., Kaandorp, W., van Lien, R., et al. (2015). Autonomic nervous system responses to viewing green and built settings: Differentiating between sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12(12): 15860–15874. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph121215026