Why being busy doesn't necessarily mean being productive

Being busy is often associated with being productive – there’s a belief that to get things done you should have a lot going on at the same time. But new research shows that switch task halfway through can increase the time it takes to complete by 25 per cent.

A study by Microsoft found that it took people an average of 15 minutes to return to their ‘important projects’ every time they were interrupted by emails, phone calls or messages. That isn’t even that they spend 15 minutes on the interruption, but that these interruptions led them to stray to other activities, such as surfing the web or looking at social media.

“I was surprised by how easily people were distracted and how long it took them to get back to the task,” Eric Horvitz, the Microsoft research scientist behind the study said. “If it’s this bad at Microsoft, it has to be bad at other companies too.”

Another study found that it’s not just the interruptions that reduce productivity when you’re busy, but there’s actually a bottleneck in the brain that prevents us from concentrating on two things at once. René Marols and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University used MRIs to successfully pinpoint a physical source for this bottleneck. Marols said that, in fact, we’re “under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it can”.

“We’re so enamoured with multitasking that we think we’re getting more done, even though our brains aren’t physically capable of this,” Travis Bradberry, president at TalentSmart, said about the issues that many face with busyness and productivity. “Regardless of what we might think, we are most productive when we manage our schedules enough to ensure that we can focus effectively on the task at hand.”

Researchers at the University of Chicago looked into why we continually do this. They found that the belief that being busy is a sign of success and hard work is so prevalent that we actually fear inactivity. They came up with the term ‘idleness aversion’ to describe how people are drawn to being busy regardless of how this busyness can impact their productivity.

The researchers also said that we use busyness to hide from our laziness and fear of failure. We burn time doing things that aren’t important because being busy makes us feel productive – even if we’re not. For instance, responding to non-urgent emails even thought there’s a big project with a looming deadline.

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