The costs of doing too much

These days many of us are being asked to do more and more things in the same or less amount of time. Many of us have become addicted to being busy. We wear it proudly as if it were a badge of honor. But why does this trend continue? In a series of research studies cited in a recent HBR article, they found that the more a society believes that opportunities for success are based on hard work, the stronger the relationship between being busy and higher status. In the U.S., we have been conditioned to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing. Unfortunately, with our increasingly busy schedules, there are undesirable mental, physical and emotional costs. According to a 2017 StressPulseSM survey, almost 60% of employees reported being in the high-stress category. With more people working from home, and with even longer hours than in 2017 I can’t even imagine what the costs of doing too much would be today!


One common way we try to fit more into our days is by doing several things at one time – multi-tasking. Many people pride themselves on how they have developed this skill, which has made them even more productive. Science disagrees. A 2015 study from Milan covering nearly 60,000 cases found that those who took on more than one task at a time ended up taking longer than if they focused on one. In his book, The Myth of Multitasking: How “Doing It All” Gets Nothing Done, David Crenshaw resoundingly debunks the myth that multitasking is effective. He shows how the person loses both time and focus. There are countless research studies supporting these statements and advocating for the practice of monotasking.

Multitasking was originally a computing term, referring to the machine’s ability to do two tasks at the same time. The irony is that even computers cannot do two things at the same time. Instead, they switch back and forth between tasks so rapidly, which gives the appearance of doing several things concurrently. Another research study estimated that the average multitasker loses up to 28% of the workday to interruptions. And this does not even count the negative effects it has on our relationships.

The only way multitasking has proven to be effective is if you combine activities that use different parts of your brain which don’t compete but complement each other. For example, you could talk on the phone while doing housework. Usually, having an engaging conversation with a friend infuses enough joy into these routine tasks to outweigh the multitasking costs.


As we were trying to fit more into our days, there is also a tendency to live a less active, more sedentary life. To get more done usually means staring at computer screens for longer periods of time while sitting down. Emerging studies suggest that sitting is the new smoking. A study out of Columbia University analyzed over 8,000 employees over a four-year period. The results showed that people who were sitting down or were inactive physically for over 13 hours a day were twice as likely to die prematurely as workers who sat at their desks for 11 1/2 hours each day. It may turn out that listening to your fitness tracker when it says to get up and walk around may just save your life. Our 2021 article on Habit Formation has a great exercise tip by the way.


One of the most profound effects of this ‘busy’ness epidemic is how it is affecting our levels of creativity and thinking. It is changing our brains, even at a biological level. It is too early to identify the long-term effects of living in a distraction-rich, hi-tech environment but one thing is exceedingly clear we are engaging in more and more shallow work.

As Cal Newport argues in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, providing value in the current economy means you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. To do this, you must be able to do deep, not shallow, work. He defines shallow work as non-cognitively demanding logistical style tasks that can be performed when distracted. These tasks are simple to replicate and therefore do not afford much value. On the other hand, deep work pushes your cognitive skills to the limit but must be performed in a distraction-free environment. These are the skills that will confer more and more value in the future, and which will be hard to replicate.

Many times, we use busyness to mean we are productive. So often we become consumed with the urgent, whether it is important. Our productivity scorecards are often not measuring the right things, like the number of emails you answer per day. What we should be doing is making time for deep work sessions regularly so that you are executing on a small number of wildly important goals.

If you want some actually great tips for productivity please look at our March 18th blog.


So, the next time someone asks you the following question, “How are you doing?” Do not answer with the platitude, “Busy”, which is really not even answering the question. As Tim Ferris reminds us in his book, Tools of Titans, if you are busy, it is because you have made choices to be in that position. For myself, I would much rather focus on the critical few things in order to be a meaningful specific instead of an overwhelmed, wandering generality. It keeps me from having to calculate the costs of doing too much.


Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.

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