Ask basically any professional American how they're doing these days and chances are good you'll hear a single, standard answer: "busy." But ask any expert in time use, or one of the many researchers who have painstakingly documented how we use our time, why Americans are so slammed all the time and you'll get an unexpected answer: they're not.

Despite endless complaints about packed schedules, study after study shows that Americans on average actually have just as much free time now as in previous years. It's a huge paradox, but a new study out of Columbia Business School might just explain it.

"I'm busy" really means "I'm important"

Telling people you're insanely busy, the researchers found, is actually a super effective humblebrag. Americans (but, interestingly, not more leisurely Italians) associate a packed schedule with achievement and status. So when someone tells you, "I'm busy," what they're really saying is, "I'm important."

To come to this conclusion, the research team conducted a fascinating series of experiments in which they asked volunteers to assess the status of fictional individuals from short descriptions. They consistently found that anything that indicated the person was extremely busy -- simply stating they had a very full schedule, describing them as wearing a Bluetooth headset, or even noting they used a time-saving grocery delivery service -- was linked with higher estimations of the person's importance and achievement.

How work became the ultimate status symbol

Not only are people trying to impress others with their busyness then, but these efforts are also likely working. Which is kind of weird, the researchers point out in their writeup of the results on the HBR blog. Historically, lounging about doing as a little as possible was the ultimate way to signal your status.

Recall, for instance, that not that long ago "bankers' hours" actually referred to short working weeks. And long before that, among aristocrats, doing absolutely no work at all for your entire life was the ultimate statement of power and status. What's changed?

"We think that the shift from leisure-as-status to busyness-as-status may be linked to the development of knowledge-intensive economies. In such economies, individuals who possess the human capital characteristics that employers or clients value (e.g., competence and ambition) are expected to be in high demand and short supply on the job market. Thus, by telling others that we are busy and working all the time, we are implicitly suggesting that we are sought after, which enhances our perceived status," the researchers suggest.

Or, to put it another way, in the past you were born into wealth and power (mostly). These days, you work your way to status (again, mostly, or at least in the popular imagination). Therefore, the best way to signal a lot of status is to publicly parade how much work you have.

Perhaps it's unsurprising then that the researchers also found that the more someone agreed with statements like "Hard work brings success in the long run" -- which indicate a belief in the ability to "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" -- the more likely they were to link busyness and importance.

Published on: Dec 19, 2016