Why you can't stop being busy


Once you become busy, it seems almost impossible to stop being busy. Why is this? Researchers Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir provide an elegant answer in Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.

This is how scarcity captures our focus and then holds on for dear life:

When scarcity captures the mind, we become more attentive and efficient…A tight deadline or a shortage of cash focuses us on the task at hand. With our minds riveted, we are less prone to careless error. This makes perfect sense: scarcity captures us because it is important, worthy of our attention.

But we cannot fully choose when our minds will be riveted. We think about that impending project not only when we sit down to work on it but also when we are at home trying to help our child with her homework. The same automatic capture that helps us focus becomes a burden in the rest of life. Because we are preoccupied by scarcity, because our minds constantly return to it, we have less mind to give to the rest of life. This is more than a metaphor. We can directly measure mental capacity or, as we call it, bandwidth. We can measure fluid intelligence, a key resource that affects how we process information and make decisions. We can measure executive control, a key resource that affects how impulsively we behave. And we find that scarcity reduces all of these components of bandwidth—it makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled. And the effects are large. Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather, it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.

When we think of the poor, we naturally think of a shortage of money. When we think of the busy, or the lonely, we think of a shortage of time, or of friends. But our results suggest that scarcity of all varieties also leads to a shortage of bandwidth. And because bandwidth affects all aspects of behavior, this shortage has consequences. The challenges of sticking to a plan, the inability to resist a new leather jacket or a new project, the forgetfulness (the car registration, making a phone call, paying a bill) and the cognitive slips (the misestimated bank account balance, the mishandled invitation) all happen because of a shortage of bandwidth. There is one particularly important consequence: it further perpetuates scarcity…Scarcity creates its own trap.

I had been using the word “bandwidth” as short hand for “mental energy” for awhile before I read this book, but I love that the authors of Scarcity give it a hard and fast meaning. Once the concept of bandwidth is clarified, it becomes easier to see how we often misuse it:

People overlook bandwidth. When you’re busy and must decide what to do next, you might take into account time you have and how long it will take you, but you rarely consider your bandwidth. You might say, “I only have half and hour. I will do this small task.” You rarely say, “I have little bandwidth. I will do this easier to accomplish task.”

We schedule and manage our time but not our bandwidth. And it is striking how little we notice or attend to our own fluctuating cognitive capacities. Contrast this with physical capacity, where we are attuned to the potential effects of eating, sleeping, exercise. Like most workers in modern society, we use our minds to make a living, yet we know remarkably little about our minds’ daily rhythms. If our job were to move boxes from one place to another, we’d have a better sense of how best to maximize our efficiency—when to exert more effort, when to rest. But for a job focused on moving ideas rather than boxes, we know little about how to maximize our limited cognitive capacity.

But the most important takeaway I had from this book was thinking more deeply about “slack.” A scarcity of time, for instance, tends to draw our attention away from the importance (or even possibility) of slack, and yet creating slack is the only way to break out of the scarcity cycle:

A standard impulse when there is a lot to do is to pack tightly—as tightly as possible, to fit everything in. And when you’re not tightly packed, there’s a feeling that perhaps you are not doing enough. In fact, when efficiency experts find workers with “unused” time on their hands, they often embark on making those workers use their time “more efficiently.” But the result is that slack will have been lost. When you are tightly packed, getting stuck in the occasional traffic jam, which for others is only mildly annoying, throws your schedule into total disarray. You are late to meeting number one, and with no time in between, that pushes into meeting number two, which pushes into obligation number three. You finally have no choice but to defer one of today’s tightly packed obligations to the next day, except, of course, that tomorrow’s schedule is “efficiently” packed, too, and the cost of that deferral ends up being high. Sounds familiar? Of course it does. You have undervalued slack. The slightest switch imposes an obligation you can no longer afford, and borrowing from tomorrow’s budget comes at high interest.

We fail to build slack because we focus on what must be done now and do not think enough about all the things that can arise in the future. The present is imminently clear whereas future contingencies are less pressing and harder to imagine. When the intangible future comes face to face with the palpable present, slack feels like a luxury. It is, after all, exactly what you do not feel you have enough to spare. What should you do? Should you leave spaces open in your schedule, say, 3-4pm Monday and Wednesday, just in case something unexpected comes up, despite the fact that there is so much you’d like to do for which you have so little time? In effect, yes. That’s what you do when you allocate forty minutes to drive somewhere a half hour away, or when you salt away some money from your monthly household budget to save for a rainy day. When you face scarcity, slack is a necessity. And yet we so often fail to plan for it. Largely, of course, because scarcity makes it hard to do.

If you’d like to be less busy, read this book. It’s completely changed the way I think about my daily work routine. What’s more, it changed the way that I think about larger social issues, like poverty. What an impressive scope for a single book.

Artwork by Jonathan Calugi.


Get smart, actionable ideas on how to find more creativity and meaning in your daily work, delivered once a week: