Embracing Busyness

If you think you’re too busy to read this, then you really need to read this.

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Based on research by Keith Wilcox, Juliano Laran, Andrew T. Stephen, and Peter Zubcsek
Columbia Business School

You likely feel busy – stressed and harried with too much to do in too little time.

Here’s a trick: Pause a minute. Tally every task you want to accomplish today. Now envision yourself successfully completing all those deadlines.

You’ve just increased your chances of doing it all.

That’s part of what Columbia Business School’s Keith Wilcox discovered during a series of experiments on busyness, deadlines, and task completion. Whereas busyness is often a demotivating condition that leads to feeling overwhelmed and missing deadlines, the marketing professor found that simple interventions can make a busy person feel more accomplished and be more productive.

“Whenever you feel busy, think about the stuff you need to complete,” says Wilcox, the Barbara and Meyer Feldberg Associate Professor of Business. “We find that when people overcome that uncertainty, the busy people become more motivated to pursue tasks.”

Research on the psychology of motivation and self-perception has established that imagining a positive outcome or receiving positive feedback can boost a person’s confidence and improve their performance. Wilcox’s studies are unique in drilling down into the psychology of busyness – with counterintuitive results that have implications for how management interacts with a workforce, how marketers understand buyer preferences, and how all of us organize our days.

Whereas idleness was the 19th century’s symbol of status, today nothing signals importance like busyness, as Wilcox’s colleague Silvia Bellezza, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, established in a 2016 paper. Nearly half of all Americans frequently feel stress, according to Gallup, and four in 10 US adults say they lack the time to do all they want. About one-third of working parents say they “always feel rushed,” according to Pew Research Center.

But along with negative health effects, from headaches to insomnia, feeling busy often leads to reduced productivity. Research has shown that busier people often work slower and are more prone to errors, which can undermine task motivation. Even kids are concerned; American children today say the top thing they’d change about their parents is making them less stressed.

It turns out, as Wilcox has found for a new working paper, there are ways to manipulate feelings of busyness to one’s advantage.

In a recent study conducted with Juliano Laran of the University of Miami, Wilcox was able to prime people into feeling busy by having them list 10 tasks on their to-do list. He also showed them a Seiko watch ad with the headline “Because You Do Not Have Enough Time.” The researchers found that the mere perception of busyness was enough to demotivate a person from wanting to conduct additional tasks, such as shopping.

But there was a twist: When people were first told to envision successfully completing their tasks, the busiest people became the most motivated to conduct additional tasks. While busy people are normally the least motivated to perform a new task, they can be turned into super-motivated task-tickers by simply receiving positive feedback. The effect was further shown when, in another experiment, the researchers instructed people to retype “I will think about successfully completing my tasks whenever I feel busy” three times and to think about successfully completing their tasks whenever they felt busy. Suddenly, busy people became hyper-productive.

“When we use a few tricks, we can make busy people more productive,” says Wilcox.

The research, detailed in a working paper titled, “The Upside of Feeling Busy: Busyness Can Produce Feelings of Competence and Increase Consumer Motivation,” follows up on a 2016 research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. In that paper, of which Wilcox was primary author, a series of studies demonstrated that busier people are more motivated to complete an overdue task than people who are not busy.

In one study, researchers analyzed a dataset of 586,808 tasks from 28,806 users of a popular task management software application. Busy users on average completed their tasks seven days faster than non-busy users, and were more likely to finish a task after missing an initial deadline. Why? Busy people tend to perceive that they are using their time effectively, which mitigates their sense of failure after missing a deadline.

“A simple way for people to become more productive is to remind themselves of all the tasks they need to do,” the authors wrote. “In a workplace setting, purposively keeping people busy may be a simple and effective antidote to chronic procrastination and task-completion tardiness.”

Wilcox’s new research shows that positive feedback from managers can also go a long way toward boosting worker productivity. Rather than berating someone for missing a deadline, positive reinforcement that the task can still be accomplished will help to mitigate the crippling feelings of being overwhelmed.

For marketers, the studies suggest ways of manipulating consumer preferences. Online retailers may want to telegraph busyness, which will make consumers more likely to prefer e-shopping. For a brick-and-mortar shop, it could be worthwhile to signal that consumers have plenty of time to complete the additional task of physically traveling to the store.

Wilcox’s research into busyness has also changed his own perspective. Another way of gaining a positive perspective on one’s daily tasks is through distancing – stepping back from the moment, removing your emotions from the equation, and taking a bigger outlook.

“Whenever I feel overwhelmed,” Wilcox says, “I just take a little distance from it and calm myself down.”

About the researcher

Keith Wilcox

Professor Wilcox’s research examines consumer judgment and decision-making, with a specific focus on the role of feelings in decision-making and self-control. He...

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