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How Always Being Busy Makes You Dumber

The behavioral economics behind why feeling strapped for time leaves you blind to the future.

[Image: Flickr user Dan Foy]

Rake, take, and cake: if these words were to flash across a screen at 1/30th of a second, which would you be able to catch? What if you were very, very hungry?

Probably cake. As Cass Sunstein reports at the New York Review of Books, this was an actual experiment: researchers asked people to view a screen with words flashing across it. All of the subjects arrived three hours before the test—some where asked to go grab lunch, others didn’t eat anything. And when they took the word-scanning test, hungry subjects did great at finding food-related words.

As Sunstein continues:

Importantly, they saw (CAKE) subconsciously, not deliberately; the flash was far too fast to allow any kind of conscious control. (For people who are thirsty, the same test works with words like WATER.)

What’s at work here is scarcity—perceiving that you don’t having enough of something—and the way it affects our thinking. As Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir detail in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much—that famished feeling produces a "cognitive tunnel" limiting what we’re able to see. Like a hungry person jumping at the mention of cake, scarcity does crazy things to us. As Sunstein says:

  • Lonely people are better at remembering social interactions in a story
  • Poor children overestimate the size of coins
  • People getting divorced are more sensitive to the presence of couples and families

"This is the key part with the lonely and the busy and the money and the poor," Mullainathan said in an interview, "now that you're in that state, your behavior changes, and the way your behavior changes seems to keep you in that state."

Thus the folly in busyness. Following the authors’ argument, feeling like you have a scarce sense of time will tunnel your vision toward getting the most done as fast as possible—rather than attending to long-term goals.

Insanely busy people get easily distracted and overwhelmed, the authors say. Since their calendars get so packed full, all they can think about is the short-term—leading to poor decisions like counterproductive multitasking, neglecting relationships for work, and losing themselves in their inboxes.

Since we’re not getting any less busy, let’s think on a few ways to deal.

Make it automatic: If we set our banking so that our checking account makes an automatic transfer to the savings at the end of every week or month, then we won’t be "too busy" to make that long-term decision.

Set reminders: When you get a reminder to do something—make a doctor’s appointment, pay a bill, get your driver’s license renewed—you’ll be more likely to do it. If This, Then That to the rescue.

Keep your calendar clear: The opposite of feeling ‘time scarce’ is feeling ‘time affluent’—unsparingly, it’s linked with happiness. We can get more time affluent by saving it. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner schedules solitude. Warren Buffett keeps his calendar clear. Maybe we should too.

Use your emotions: Researchers have found that a feeling of awe can also make people feel more time rich. They found that when you encounter a jaw-dropping moment, you experience time more slowly. But if you can’t make it to a mountain, you can get this eagle’s perspective.

Hat tip: the New York Review of Books