09/03/2014 11:11 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

The Busyness Dilemma: The Five Reasons We Secretly Like Being Busy (And Why We Should Break the Habit Anyway)

Jessica Peterson via Getty Images

Co-authored by HuffPost Blogger Shani Harmon

This past Wednesday morning at 8:07 a.m., I was dialed into a conference call line along with seven others. We were waiting for the meeting host, my client Michael, to join. He is a Chief of Staff at a very large company and a very busy guy. While waiting, one person mentioned "Hey, I got an email from Michael at 2 a.m.," and another chimes in, "Yeah, and I know he had a 6:30 a.m. call this morning." When he finally joined 10 minutes late, he was out of breath and mumbling stream of conscious thoughts: "Sorry guys, had a call, ran late, I need to eat some cereal, trying to lose weight. Wait, now my wife's iPad is beeping, hold on. Also, I need to get in the car so can we end early?" And so it goes... Michael is most definitely caught in what Greg McKeown describes as the "busyness bubble."

The busyness bubble is our outsized affection for being overscheduled and overworked. Numerous smart thinkers including Mr. McKeown, Arianna Huffington and Guy Kawasaki have called for us to stop glorifying busy. But we sure haven't yet.

Why is it so hard? Because, in our experience, there are a five very seductive pay-offs to the busyness racket.

  1. Importance: In our society, busy equals important. The implicit assumption seems to be that if you're not in back-to-back meetings all day, you're either "just a worker bee" or people don't care what you think. And the converse holds as well: If our schedule is "packed" and we're "swamped" then clearly we're in demand -- we're a player, we matter.
  2. Heroism: If we pack our schedule to accommodate every request that comes our way, we're a team player. When we volunteer for the special project, we're seen as collaborative and heroic. If we pull an all-nighter, we must be going above and beyond, not just working inefficiently.
  3. Inclusion: We're wired to want to belong. Remember in 7th grade when you would hear people whispering and instantly assume that they're talking about you? A small part of that 12 year old still lives inside all of us. There's even an acronym for it: FOMO, Fear of Missing Out. Attendance = inclusion, even when it's a total waste of time we don't have.
  4. Entertainment: A recent scientific experiment suggests we'd rather give ourselves an electric shock than be alone with our thoughts! When we're busy, there's a constant stream of information and distractions coming our way, leaving little time or space for reflection. Thank goodness.
  5. Accountability out-clause: Our client Michael had a deliverable due for that morning meeting. But of course, because he's so busy, no one mentioned it. Many super busy people miss a deadline or commitment and excuse it with "Sorry guys just couldn't get to it. I've been back-to-back since Tuesday" or "I've been on the road, and got in at 2am this morning" As anticipated, we feel sorry for them and we give them a pass.

If being busy means we're important, heroic, included, entertained -- and we get to pick and choose which commitments we keep -- what's not to love about that? But wait... there may be some long-term consequences to consider. When we're in the throes of busyness, we are at effect of the needs, whims and meetings (!) of others. We prioritize based on what's right in front of us, rather than what is most important. We find ourselves stressed, unfocused, short-tempered, and distracted. Most likely, we're not growing, learning or developing. We believe we're juggling it all, but really, we've got none of it under control (and everyone knows it). And as a result of all that, long-term, we're less fulfilled and less effective.

The way we see it, busyness is a seductive trap too many of us fall into. While getting out isn't easy, or necessarily comfortable, it's the only path to living a more intentional, focused and productive life. Or as Arianna calls it -- it's the only way to thrive.

Why do you think we like being busy? And what do you think it's costing us? Share your perspective in the comments section.