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Feeling busy could be useful for you

FEELING busy today? You are not alone. It is ubiquitous to experience busyness under high workloads in many fast-paced societies like Singapore. Busyness, as a subjective and unpleasant feeling, is commonly associated with stress. Many would rather avoid being busy to relish in leisure.

Paradoxically, modern societies welcome busyness. Have you ever felt the need to justify time "wasted" on leisure? If you have, you may have fallen into a "cult of busyness". The popular buzz-phrase reflects society's compulsion to work. It stems from society's deeply-ingrained work ethic that makes it difficult for people to even imagine a life that is not busy. Research shows that in these societies, busy individuals are extolled as competent and in demand. Some people wear busyness as a badge of honour.

A common understanding in psychology is that people keep themselves busy due to outside pressure or to earn recognition from others. But is busyness useful? Do we truly desire it?

Busyness - boon or bane?

For many, busyness is synonymous with stress. Working excessively is also often viewed as workaholism, a guilt-compelled addiction to work. Research evidence suggests that workaholics tend to experience many negative physical and psychological consequences in the long term.

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We argue that busyness can be a double-edged sword. In our research, we challenged the one-sided negative view of busyness, and unravelled how, for whom and in what situations, the emotion of busyness is useful.

In pursuit of certain goals, our emotions can help or hurt goal attainment. For example, when encountering a difficult problem, feeling worried can be crippling for some but it can mobilise others to take preventive actions and even solve the problem creatively.

Our personality traits provide one way to understand which emotions work for or against us. Broadly speaking, people can be characterised in terms of five personality traits: openness to experience; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness and neuroticism.

Research reveals that people high in neuroticism perform better in problem solving when they feel worried, but those high in extraversion perform better when they feel happy. This is because different personalities favour different ways of approaching a problem. Some personalities favour a vigilance strategy to prevent negative outcomes and to avoid committing errors.

Emotions such as worry prepare the mind to perform under this vigilant mindset. Some personalities favour an eagerness strategy to approach positive outcomes and to take opportunistic risks.

This eager mindset is consistent with emotions such as happiness and excitement. Those emotions that align with one's personality to boost performance are called "trait-consistent emotions".

Busyness can be good if you desire to feel busy

To contribute new knowledge to understanding the psychology of busyness, we focused on the personality of conscientiousness and examined busyness as an emotion consistent with the conscientious trait. Conscientious individuals are self-disciplined, hardworking and achievement-oriented.

We contend that busyness aligns well with these conscientious-related characteristics. With busyness being a trait-consistent emotion, we predicted that conscientious individuals will prefer feeling busy and perform better under high busyness. We conducted two experiments to test these predictions.

In the first experiment, we informed participants that they would do an emotion-recall task before a cognitively-demanding task. In the emotion-recall task, participants were given a choice to write a short essay about an event in which they felt very busy, relaxed, worried, happy or guilty. They were further told that their choice of emotional event may affect their performance on the next task. As expected, conscientious individuals preferred recalling busy events to other emotional events, which suggests that they perceived the experience of busyness as useful for promoting their performance in the cognitive task.

In the second experiment, we further studied the effect of anticipated workloads on cognitive performance. We randomly told participants that there would be either five more, one more, or no extra tests after the main cognitive test. We found that because conscientious participants tend to desire busyness more than their less conscientious counterparts, they performed better under anticipation of high workloads (ie, when they had to finish five more tasks). Interestingly, people who generally disliked busyness performed the poorest when they anticipated high workloads, but their performance was comparable with everyone else under low workloads. This implies that it is their aversion to busyness and not actual ability that hampered their performance.

Overall, our data support the view that for some people, busyness can be a useful emotion to boost performance. Conscientious people are more likely to benefit from the feeling of busyness, which is to them a trait-consistent emotion. Among people who generally dislike busyness, their performance declines significantly under high workloads.

Embrace your inner busyness, not workaholism

We want to emphasise that desiring busyness is not the same as working like a workaholic. Our data allow us to differentiate between busyness and workaholism.

Although workaholics often want to stay busy, they do not receive a performance boost from busyness, unlike those who show an autonomous desire to feel busy as a trait-consistent emotion.

Understanding the underlying motivation can explain why. Workaholics work compulsively to avoid uncontrollable feelings of anxiety and guilt. Their performance increase is often short-lived and accompanied by poor health, less satisfying social relationships, and burnout in the long term. Critically, workaholics are driven by guilt. They do not truly feel that they have autonomy over their work.

Our findings open up an interesting avenue to study busyness as a trait-consistent emotion that enhances work performance. Nevertheless, we want to highlight the importance of maintaining personal autonomy to decide when to immerse oneself in high busyness.

When we have to meet high work demands, it is maladaptive to procrastinate or focus attention on the debilitating effect of stress. Instead of avoiding busyness, we can channel the feeling of busyness to work for us, not against us.

This way, we embrace busyness as an emotion to facilitate task completion and spur performance under high workloads. As the workday ends, put work away for that well-deserved leisure time. After all, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

  • The writers are from Singapore Management University. Brandon Koh is a PhD candidate, and Angela Leung is associate professor of psychology.

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