collage of balance

The Secret to Finding the Elusive Balance Between Busy and Happy

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By Janet Choi

collage of balance

Let’s face it. We have a love-hate relationship with being busy. We want more free time but are quick to jam-pack our calendars and flaunt the bling of our busy status.

While busyness has become a badge of honor to be admired and applauded, at the heart of it, busyness seems a human way to assert that you exist, to prove you matter. I do, therefore I am — which can quickly morph into, I do more, therefore I am better.

University of Maryland sociologist John P. Robinson studies how people use their time for a living. He’s even called “Father Time” by his colleagues, and he discovered that the happiest people actually balance busy schedules by not feeling rushed. Only about a tenth of Americans attain this elusive balance, and that might be because we’re inclined to trick ourselves into enjoying busyness for more than it’s worth.

Busyness is Instinctive

It’s actually instinctive to seek busyness. As a whole, people don’t like being idle or bored, or even left alone with their thoughts. Researchers from the University of Chicago found that when given a choice, people will say they prefer to do nothing — but then, even the tiniest justification is enough to convince people to fill their time.

In the study, participants filled out a survey, and upon finishing, were told that the next survey wouldn’t be ready for fifteen minutes. They had to choose between dropping off the finished survey right there or at a location farther away, and would then get a piece of chocolate as a small token of thanks. When told that there were different kinds of candy at the locations, more people chose to make the short trip to the farther location.

Surprisingly, this had an effect on people’s happiness. The people who chose to keep busy by taking the time to walk out to the far location rated themselves as happier than those who’d chosen to do nothing. The same was also true when the researchers didn’t give participants an option and assigned locations — the busy group said they felt better.

Similarly, when given a choice, you might saw you prefer doing nothing, almost any excuse to be busy will do. Compare how you might look forward to the weekend or fantasize about taking the day off to do nothing — but then when that free time comes around, you find yourself occupied.

We take almost any excuse to be busy because in the short term, we feel happier doing something rather than nothing.

How Busyness Tricks Us into Increasing Its Value

However, we end up tricking ourselves because we deem activity more valuable merely by doing it.

Take the IKEA effect, a principle named by Dan Ariely, Michael Norton, and Daniel Mochon. Think back to the last time you assembled your own IKEA furniture — you felt proud of your creation, you admired your own fine allen-wrench work. That sense of satisfaction from realizing “hey, I made that!” is the IKEA effect, “people place more value on their own creations, even for mundane products that are not fun to build, unique, or customized.”

Ariely and his colleagues even found that people were literally willing to pay more for products that they’d built themselves. The reason for this increase in value? You’re now accounting for increased feelings of competence and the “desire to signal a competent identity” to yourself and others.

Doing stuff — even when it’s trivial — makes you feel competent. That’s self-affirming and overpowers the yearning to balance busy schedules. Busyness taps into a psychological need to feel like we matter, but that doesn’t mean we’ve considered whether we’re doing what matters.

How to Balance Busy Lives

Avoiding busyness at all costs isn’t the answer. Filling our time can make us happy — and ideally, we can hit that sweet spot of engaging ourselves in a way that fills us up rather than drains us.

For those busy and happy people, it’s all a matter of finding equilibrium. As Robinson explains in Scientific American, that is achieved:

not only … by ignoring the “rat race” and subscribing to a philosophy of “Don’t hurry, be happy,” but by organizing their lifestyles to minimize spells of boredom and lack of focus as well. Thus, there seems dysfunction in having either too much or too little free time.

The secret, according to Robinson, is to increase your perception of control — which decreases the stress and agitation of having too much on your plate and increases your happiness. Here are three ways to start:

  1. Make a 3-part to-do list.
    This suggestion from Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed, is a handy way to keep balance at the top of your mind. She splits her master to-do list into three priority categories of work, love, and play. The visibility into what’s getting done in which area helps prevents an imbalance of focus. Decide which three areas of life, such as creative projects, health, family, are priorities for you and use them to categorize your to-do list.
  2. Embrace a little discomfort.
    In general, we have a real aversion of being bored and left alone with our thoughts. Yet this time for daydreaming, unhurried thought, and listening to our inner voice, while not always a pleasant activity, is valuable. It’s how you harness what’s called the brain’s “default mode network,” which processes higher-level emotional and moral thinking and helps us make sense of our experiences.
  3. Use this counterintuitive, calming mantra.
    Slate writer Hanna Rosin was pleasantly surprised to find that self-talk such as saying to yourself, “You’re not that busy” is a way to stem the tide of anxiety and stress. “Doing this did actually stop the tape in my head of what had to get done that day. I just calmly did one thing after another,” she writes. The mental mantra is a neat way to flip the bad habit of repeating — and reinforcing — how busy you are.

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