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How Being Busy Affects Our Motivation


There's an old saying that if you want to get something done, always ask a busy person. Researchers have scientifically tested that theory. And NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam joins us now to explain what they found. Hey ya.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm skeptical.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is it really true that busy people get more stuff done?

VEDANTAM: Well, not always, Lulu. I think you're right. Sometimes when you know you have a ton of stuff to do, you can feel so overwhelmed that you can just feel paralyzed, and you can't get anything done. But there are times when being busy can be helpful. I was talking with Keith Wilcox. He's a marketing professor at Columbia. And he told me he got the idea of studying the pluses and minuses of being busy by his observing own life.

KEITH WILCOX: A lot of my research comes personal out of experience. Obviously, I'm very busy. This topic kind of originated between my co-authors because we were all getting together and talking about how busy we were. And, you know, maybe under some conditions when you're actually busy, it actually can help you be more productive.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This seems counterintuitive to me. I don't know - you know, I'm busy - apparently, that means I have a lot on my plate. And yet you're saying you can get more stuff done. Why and when did he find out that being busy was helpful?

VEDANTAM: Well, he found that it was helpful when it came to dealing with setbacks. When people failed to complete a task, when they blow a deadline, there appear to be systematic differences in how busy people and not busy people respond to the signal of failure. Wilcox and his colleagues - Juliano Laran, Andrew Stephen and Peter Zubcsek - they ran a series of experiments. In some experiments, they made some people feel busier than others by asking them to remember more things that they had to do. They found that people made to feel busier behave differently when they suffered a setback with meeting a deadline.

WILCOX: The busier someone is after they miss a deadline, the less time it takes for them to complete the task subsequently.

VEDANTAM: You know, Lulu, researchers also analyzed data from a company that makes a widely-used task management productivity software. The researchers studied the behavior of 20,000 workers trying to accomplish half a million tasks. People who had lots of tasks were seen as busier people. Again, when you looked at people who miss a deadline, the busier people tended to pick themselves up afterwards and get the task done quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I'm someone who always misses deadlines. So what you're kind of saying is that actually what needs to happen here is that my editor needs to make me feel more busy than I already do so that I can move forward. Why is this happening? Why is this happening?

VEDANTAM: Wilcox thinks there might be different things at play, Lulu. One thing is that when you miss a deadline, it's possible that many people blame themselves but busy people attribute it to the fact that they're busy. So being busy in effect gives people a story to tell themselves where they locate the cause of the setback not in themselves but in the context of what's going on. So they feel less guilty about missing the deadline. Wilcox told me he's taken this idea to heart in his own life.

WILCOX: One of the biggest things that I do is that after I miss a deadline or let's say I eat too much because these two effects work somewhat similarly, I just remind myself not to feel guilty about it.

VEDANTAM: You know, it's interesting, Lulu, but Wilcox told me something along the lines of what you just said, which is it might be a good idea in the workplace, first of all, to make that employees not feel bad about missing deadlines but also potentially to keep them busy enough so that once they miss a deadline, they pick themselves up afterwards to get the task done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I like that - no guilt. All right, thank you, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Thanks Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Shankar Vedantam NPR's social science correspondent. He's also the host of a podcast that explores the unseen patterns in human behavior. It's called Hidden Brain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shankar Vedantam
Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
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