Restless Project: Why ‘busy’ is the new cufflinks, and why that might be killing you

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If you are working too hard, and proud of it, you’re making a big mistake. recently asked me to examine this issue.

“Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.”

So says the subway ad bearing a young woman with the sexy, come-hither, empty stare of an addict.  Fiverr, a firm that’s raised more than $100 million by getting people to work for as little as $5, has plastered these overwork-glorifying advertisements all over New York City.

You might think people would feel sorry for her.  Instead, new research suggests they probably admire her and think she’s important.

Busy, it turns out, is the new cufflinks.

There’s been a massive shift in cultural attitudes recently, one that would make Karl Marx feel vindicated.  Until recently, people established social pecking order by bragging about long vacations, expensive jewelry, and spacious kitchens for entertaining. Today, such bragging has been replaced by two words: The “crazy schedule.”

In fact, according to study author Silvia Bellezza, the busier someone seems to be, the more they are seen as a “rare gemstone.”  Well, if diamonds are made by crushing forces, people can be too, I suppose.

Here’s just one example of busy-as-brag Bellezza, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School, pulled from social media. It’ll probably sound familiar.

“Opened a show last Friday. Begin rehearsals for another next Tuesday. In-between that, meetings in DC. I HAVE NO LIFE!”

OK, here’s a few more gag-reflex-challenging humblebrags cited in the study:

““The CNN-LA green room is a cold and lonely place at 7 on a Sunday morning!”

“Hi, I’m 16 and I’m publishing 3 books and an album this year. Do you have any advice on how to handle it best?”

“Watching my brother graduate from Andover today. So proud, it is silly. More important than MTV awards but thank you to all who voted for me!”

It’s not just a famous-person thing.

In a series of experiments, Bellezza showed that bragging about having no life is the best way to communicate importance in our overwork-glorifying culture.

(Read my Restless Project series.)

In a paper titled “Conspicuous Consumption of Time: When Busyness and Lack of Leisure Time Become a Status Symbol,” Bellezza found research subjects expressed more admiration for people who show all the trappings of being crazed doers.  Wearing a Bluetooth headset communicates someone is important (if nerdy), for example.  After all, anyone who has time to take a handset out of their pocket when the phone rings must have too much free time on their hands.

The paper was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, co-authored by Georgetown’s Neeru Paharia and Harvard’s Anat Keinan.

“Doing some quick back of the envelope calculations (i.e., averaging status inferences across studies), I found that the busy person seems to receive a status boost of about 16% as compared to the person conducting a more leisurely lifestyle,” Bellezza told me. “I can definitely tell you that the increase is statistically significant, but whether 16% is a ‘big or small’ number is complex to tell.”

This notion has already worked its way into advertising, as the Fiverr ad above attests.  Cadillac scored a big win with an Olympics TV ad back in 2014 that ridiculed Europeans for their long summer vacations. I covered that as, “Sure I’m working to death, but at least I have a Cadillac!”

Bellezza’s paper includes many similarly dismal observations, including research showing that Italians aren’t falling for this overwork myth.  (They still seem impressed by leisure).  Meanwhile, marketers make easy marks out of American consumers by flattering their busyness, “implicitly telling them: You don’t have time to cook, you’re too important; you’re a loser if you have time to cook,” the paper says.

How do you avoid looking like a loser? Use social media to tell people you don’t have time for them:

“An individual who is posting Facebook updates about his busy lifestyle at work is perceived as higher in status and conveys a more aspirational image than an individual whose updates reveal a more relaxed working schedule,” the paper says.

Want to really drive the point home? Make sure it’s clear you’re killing yourself at work because you want to, not because you have to:

“We demonstrate that participants ascribe a higher status and aspirational image to a busy individual because they believe that she is a scarce and highly-sought after resource, as long as the decision to work long hours is perceived as deliberate.”

Finally, forget the $900 shoes. Just do something that screams Type A personality and you’ll be admired by all:

“As compared to more expensive brands and products not associated with busyness, brands and products associated with a busy lifestyle, such as a timesaving grocery service or a multitasking Bluetooth headset, can lead to higher inferences of status in the eyes of others.”

Almost 20 years ago, David Brooks identified a similar cultural shift regarding conspicuous consumption in his book Bobos in Paradise. In it, he talks about the rise of stores like Restoration Hardware, as the “new upper class” began to opt for expensive-yet-still-functional items of excess, like $350 hammers.  Merely consuming was out, he found. There had to be a hint of practicality in the overpriced items rich people bought, and showed to their rich friends.  It’s possible to interpret the shift found by Bellezza as a continuation of that notion.

There is, however, an important catch. Rich people can afford to be busy with important things because someone else usually does their…busywork.  Many people gushed at Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer when she was back at work moments after doctors cut her new baby’s umbilical cord.  Whatever you think about family leave, it’s essential to understand that the story is part fable, part propaganda. Of course Meyer couldn’t have done this without the aid of assistants.  Implicit in the fable, however, is that anyone can do it.  Anyone can be that devoted to their job.

Work should be the drug of choice.  And when it is, be sure to tell your friends!

Here’s another humblebrag that might sound familiar:

“30 Hours of Working and still going strooong.”

That Tweet was written by Mita Diran, an ad writer for Young and Rubican. She died hours after sending it, her death blamed on overwork.

The next time you see a humblebrag from a busy person, think of Mita.  And the next time you are tempted to brag about how busy you are, see it for what it is – an effort to convince yourself and everyone around you that you are rare and special.  And a tool by a company to turn you into a sucker who works for free.

About Bob Sullivan 1431 Articles
BOB SULLIVAN is a veteran journalist and the author of four books, including the 2008 New York Times Best-Seller, Gotcha Capitalism, and the 2010 New York Times Best Seller, Stop Getting Ripped Off! His latest, The Plateau Effect, was published in 2013, and as a paperback, called Getting Unstuck in 2014. He has won the Society of Professional Journalists prestigious Public Service award, a Peabody award, and The Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness award, and been given Consumer Action’s Consumer Excellence Award.

1 Comment

  1. How come people who claim to be SO busy working have time to post on Facebook? Maybe taking time at work to post on Facebook is WHY they are SO busy?

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