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Two ways being busy can actually be a good thing

Could being busy actually help you make better decisions?

Two ways being busy can actually be a good thing
[Photos: Dan Gold/Unsplash; Geert Pieters/Unsplash; Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash]

When someone asks how you’re doing, saying you’re busy is no longer an impressive answer. Once a badge of honor, today it sounds like a precursor to overwhelm and burnout. It also shuts down conversation and isolates you from the asker.

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Saying or even bragging that you’re busy, however, is different than keeping busy. According to research, being busy has two benefits that could improve your health.

Busyness can help you make better choices

Should I go to the gym or relax on the sofa? Do I splurge on a treat or save money for a long-term goal? Every day we face decisions that cause us to choose between instant gratification and future well-being. Viewing yourself as a busy person can help you practice better self-control, delaying gratification and making decisions that will benefit you later, according to research from INSEAD, a global graduate business school.


Related: These are the secrets to feeling less busy


“When we perceive ourselves to be busy, it boosts our self-esteem, tipping the balance in favor of the more virtuous choice,” write Amitava Chattopadhyay, professor of marketing at INSEAD and her coauthors, in their report, “When Busy Is Less Indulging: Impact of a Busy Mind-set on Self-Control Behaviors.”

In an experiment, Chattopadhyay and her team activated the “busy mind-set” of a group of participants by exposing them to subtle messages that suggested they were busy, or by asking them to write about activities that had recently kept them busy. A second group didn’t receive the prompts. All of the participants were then asked to make choices that involved self-control, such as decisions about food, exercise, or saving for retirement. Participants who had been reminded of their busy lifestyle were consistently more inclined than control participants to make decisions that would benefit them later.

People who think of themselves as busy also thought of themselves as being important, which gave them a heightened sense of self-control, the researchers concluded. But there is a fine line. Participants who felt busy and under significant time pressure became anxious and made hedonic decisions.

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“When we temporarily dampened the sense of self-importance of participants who otherwise felt busy, the self-control effect vanished,” said Chattopadhyay.

Busyness Boosts Cognition

Having a busy lifestyle can also improve your memory and brain function, according to a study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience called, “The Busier the Better: Greater Busyness Is Associated With Better Cognition.”

Sara Festini, a neuroscientist from the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Vital Longevity, tested cognitive performance in relationship to age and activity level. Participants age 50 to 89 who kept busier than the standard level of activity of others their age tested better on cognitive tasks such as reasoning, vocabulary, and memory. While this study focused on middle to late adulthood, a similar relationship between busyness and cognition can be found in all adults age 20 and older, said Festini.

A surprising result of this study, however, is that researchers found cognition remained consistent from ages 50 to 89.

“We think it’s informative that we see similar relationships between busyness and cognition throughout middle age and older adulthood,” Festini said in an interview with Smithsonian. “You might expect to see larger differences in old age when there’s more change going on with cognition, but we found that the relationship was consistent across our sample.”

Stress can negatively affect cognition. To reap the rewards of being busy, it’s important to be in control of your activities instead of letting them take control of you.

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