#104 The Hidden Costs Of Being Busy

The Hidden Costs Of Being Busy

On December 14-16, 1970 at Princeton University researchers performed one of the most insightful studies on human behavior.  Researchers wanted to know if, in our busy lives, whether or not we would be the Good Samaritan to an unknown stranger who was dying.

To study this question, researchers recruited 67 seminary students.  They selected seminary students as these were university students studying to be pastors or priests, possibly the most caring people in society.

Students were told that they would be giving a 3-5 minute impromptu speech on the Parable of the Good Samaritan from the Bible.  Half of the students were told to take their time walking to the other end of the campus to give their speech (unhurried study group) and the other half were told that they were already late and had to hurry (“busy” study group).

Unknown to the students, a “dying” victim was placed in the alley they had to walk through on their way to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  What do you think happened?  Did these caring young seminary students stop to help the “dying” person laying in the alley?

Interestingly, only 10% of the busy seminary students stopped to help the “dying” victim.  Let me phrase this a different way, 90% of the “busy” seminary students, on their way to give a talk on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, were so busy that they consciously walked past a dying man laying in an alley.  Can being busy so distort our sense of humanity that we completely stop caring for others?

Fortunately, the unhurried students were more than six times more likely to stop and help the “dying” victim.  Do you ever feel like you have too many things to do each day?  Are you always hurrying?  What really are the hidden costs of being busy?

What Do Busy People Miss?

I used to wear the “I’m busy” badge of honor.  It seemed like a status symbol.  I felt important.

Unfortunately, I have found that when I am the busiest, I miss out on the most important things in life.  When I am busy I am not connecting with my family, I am not connecting with myself, and I am definitely not connecting with the spiritual aspect of my life.

Is there a health cost of being busy?

Time Urgency and Heart Attack Risk

Harvard researcher, Dr. Stephen R. Cole, sought to answer whether busyness, or a sense of time urgency, translated into any cardiac effects.  To answer this question, he studied 680 men living in the Boston area.

In this study, Dr. Cole found that regardless of people’s diets, exercise patterns, family history, or smoking status, the “busiest people,” or those with the strongest sense of time urgency, were more than four times more likely to have a heart attack than those who felt the least sense of time urgency.

The Most Important Thing In Life

As a cardiologist, I have taken care of many patients as they were dying from heart failure in the intensive care unit (ICU).  I have always found these “end of life discussions” are the most difficult and meaningful conversations to have with patients and their grieving families.

In my 20 years since graduating from Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1995, I have yet to meet a dying patient who shared with me that they wished they could have been busier in their lives.  Rather, deathbed patients have either felt joy on a life well-lived in the company many caring family members or have died alone in the ICU having lived a life of regret by not connecting with others.

In the end, how we measure our lives is really a function of how well we have connected with others.   Being too busy prevents us from connecting with others.  It prevents us from experiencing the true joys in life.  Busyness harms our health.  These are the hidden costs of being busy.

Four Ways to Stop Being So Busy

Are we trying to do too much?  Is our busyness preventing us from connecting with others and finding meaning in this life?  Let me share with you four strategies I have found helpful in treating the busyness disease.

1. Define What Is Most Important To You

Treating busyness does not mean we have to slow down.  Rather, it just means we must focus our efforts on that which is truly most important or essential.

This may mean redefining what success looks like in this life.  You may have to eliminate many important but not essential things in your life.

For the dying patients I have cared for in the ICU, a successful life looks a lot different than most of the busy people I know.  For dying patients, success is all about relationships and leaving a legacy not to-do lists.

A lack of time is a lack of priorities.  There is plenty of time, even for the seemingly most busy people, if they put first things first.

I have recently read two great books that have helped to put this in perspective for me.  These books are Essentialism by Greg McKeown and How Will You Measure Your Life by Clayton Christensen.

2. Manage Your To-Do List

I used to have a long to-do list everyday.  A list that I hopelessly never fully checked off.  This left me busy and stressed out each day until bedtime.

I have found that I do best when I limit myself to just 3 items on my to-do list each day.  In other words, in addition to seeing patients at the hospital each day, I can have no more than 3 items on my to-do list.  One of these 3 items is to connect with each person in my family, one on one, for at least 20 minutes each day.

While I am not always perfect, this strategy allows me to be both a minimalist and essentialist at the same time.  If my to-do list includes more than 3 items, I quickly find that I am too busy and disconnected from what really matters.  If spending 60 minutes of your precious time each day on Facebook or watching TV is not on your to-do list then stop doing them.

3. Always Arrive 15 Minutes Early

The busy person is always racing the clock and always loses.  Just like the caring seminary students in the Princeton Good Samaritan Study, the hidden cost can be lost relationships or a lost life.

To help me not be so busy, I make it a goal of always arriving 15 minutes early.  When I am not rushed I am happier and more in tune with life.  While I may not always arrive 15 minutes early, having this as a goal helps me to be less hurried and more in tune with others.

4. Stop Saying You Are Busy

Strangely, there is an unusual culture in the field of medicine.  Doctors often address each other by asking the question, “Are you busy?”  The implication is that a doctor with too many patients is a successful doctor.

How often do you tell friends and coworkers how busy you are?  Let me challenge you to never say you are busy again.  When asked, like I am often asked at the hospital, always respond “I am trying to be effective not busy.”

Take Home Message

The real cost of busyness is missing out happiness and health.  In other words, missing out on life.  Busyness is a disease that has to be treated.  It is not a badge of honor or the sign of an important person.

What are you doing to end busyness?

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