If you want something done, give it to a busy person.
There may be some truth to that adage about personal productivity. Researchers ran five different experiments (Wilcox et al., 2016) to see whether someone who was busy was more likely to hit a deadline than someone who wasn’t.
The assumption should be the other way around. If someone is busy, they’re more likely to miss deadlines because they’re already tight on time and have to juggle multiple tasks and all the information related to them in their head. Additionally, they also have less slack or wiggle room to maneuver if something unexpected happens.
After running five different experiments, here’s where the researchers landed:
“…when people miss a deadline for completing a task, those who are busy at the time that they miss the deadline will be more motivated to complete the task and take less time to complete it compared to those who are not busy.”
They also say it’s not necessarily that these busy people are more productive or efficient, but they feel more efficient with their time when they’re busy. What happens when we have a lot of work in front of us? Well, if we manage to do most of it, we feel good about ourselves. We have a sense of accomplishment. Missing one measly deadline doesn’t really bother us because we have amassed a bunch of confidence already with all those prior successes.
Here’s a slightly deeper look:
“The mere perception that one is using their time effectively can influence motivation and actual efficiency at completing tasks. Previous research has conceptualized the motivation to engage in productive activity as a personality trait (Keinan & Kivetz, 2011), which suggests that productivity may be based on stable characteristics. The present research demonstrates that people’s efforts at being productive are also determined by their subjective sense of using time effectively, which can be influenced by context. This offers an additional account of why productive people are more effective with their time: productive people may be better at managing failure. They may have a more stable sense of their own effectiveness, which allows them to remain engaged in tasks once an inevitable deadline is missed.”
In short, making people feel busier than they are can lead them to being more productive.
Some parts of this work and the five studies it comprises are stronger than others. When taken as a whole, there’s compelling evidence, but I had a few issues with two of the studies in particular.
In any event, we are missing an important idea here: the difference between being a busy generally speaking and being stretched thin.
The adage (“If you want something done, give it to a busy person”) works as long as the person isn’t too busy. There is a sweet spot for busyness. I’ve mentioned before a book called Scarcity: Why having too little means so much (2013, Mullainathan and Shafir), which comes to mind again now. In the book, the authors describe situations of scarcity. Sometimes it’s scarcity of money, but in other cases it’s scarcity of time or some other resource. The point is that when people are stretched really thin, to the point of scarcity, they have no wiggle room whatsoever. When there’s no slack at all, something has to give:
“The poor are not just short on cash. They are also short on bandwidth. … The same person when experiencing poverty—or primed to think about his monetary troubles—did significantly worse on several tests. He showed less flexible intelligence. He showed less executive control. With scarcity on his mind, he simply had less mind for everything else. This is important because so many of our behaviors… rely on bandwidth. For example, an overtaxed bandwidth means a greater propensity to forget. Not so much the things you know (what psychologists call declarative memory), like the make of your first car, but things that fall under what psychologists call prospective memory—memory for things that you had planned to remember, like calling the doctor or paying a bill by the due date.”
So if you want something done, give it to a busy person… but not someone pushed to the point of scarcity.
Keinan, A., & Kivetz, R. (2011). Productivity orientation and the consumption of collectable experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 37, 935–950.
Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.
Wilcox, K., Stephen, A. T., Laran, J., & Zubcsek, P. P. (2016) How Being Busy Can Increase Motivation and Reduce Task Completion Time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 110(3) 371-384.
Image by Jan Jespersen, CC.