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The Busy Trap: How Keeping Busy Became a Status Symbol

We know you're busy: This is how busyness became a status symbol, and why you're probably doing it on purpose.

Being busy isn't an excuse or a lament anymore. It's a sign of status — maybe even a humblebrag.

At some point, the standard answer to "how are you" changed from "fine, thanks" to "busy!" Researchers at Columbia and Harvard set out to understand why.

In a series of studies recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research, they analyzed thousands of Tweets from celebrities for "humblebrags," and found about 12 percent of those were about being busy — "having no life" or needing a vacation, for example.

Then they created a fictional Facebook user and asked volunteers to look at her posts. When she posted about working nonstop, people thought she had higher status and more money than if she posted about her leisure time.

The researchers, led by Silvia Bellezza, a professor of marketing at the Columbia Business School, found that people were even impressed by the use of products aimed at busy people — like the grocery delivery service Peapod, or a Bluetooth headset.

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Previous research at the University of Chicago found that people actually prefer being busy, even if it hurts their productivity.

"People dread idleness, and their professed reasons for activity may be mere justifications for keeping busy," University of Chicago professor of behavioral science and marketing Christopher Hsee observed. For example, they might respond to non-urgent email instead of finishing a big project.

And while we may legitimately feel busy, Americans' working hours have steadily decreased over the last seven decades. In 1948, when the government started keeping track, Americans worked an average of 42.8 hours a week. Today we average 38.7, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Current Population Survey.

The finding that busyness has become a status symbol turns Thorstein Veblen's idea of conspicuous consumption among the "leisure class" on its head. Veblen theorized that the absence of work, or conspicuous leisure, was the ultimate status symbol.

But at some point, our popular conception of wealth changed from something like Thurston Howell III with a yacht and plenty of downtime, to a mega-mogul working around the clock.

Bellezza and her colleagues write that traditional status symbols like luxury cars or handbags also make people seem less likeable, so busyness may be "a potentially more socially acceptable and efficient way for people to signal their social status."

They theorized that Americans might be more impressed by being busy than would Europeans because of our belief in social mobility — that if we just work hard enough, we can achieve the American Dream.

Sure enough, when they tried similar research with Italians, the results flipped. Italians considered people with more leisure time to have higher status than those who were working all the time.

So next time you’re feeling crazy busy, think about whether what you’re busy doing is really accomplishing your goals. And if all else fails, consider Italy.