Productivity and Happiness: Why Are We So Busy?

“Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” ~John Lennon

There have been times in my life when I believed all my happiness revolved around how busy I was. If I was busy, I was using time wisely. If I was busy, I was proving to myself that I was valuable. If I was busy, I was creating the possibility of a better life in the future. Any threat to my productivity was a threat to my sense of hope.

Being busy didn’t make me feel happy, but it created the illusion that I was somehow building a foundation for that feeling someday, somewhere, when I could finally slow down and be free.

Most of us are fiercely defensive of our busyness. We have processes to streamline, goals to accomplish, promotions to earn, debt to eliminate, exercise regimes to master, dreams to chase—and hopefully along the way, people to help and inspire.

We multitask, even when it means not truly being present in an activity we enjoy, and maybe even feel guilty for blocks of unplanned time in our schedules. We look for productivity hacks and apps, join forums to discuss ways to get more things done; and when we do aim to simplify our lives, even that undertaking involves a lengthy to-do list.

Productivity and the American Dream

Our obsession with productivity is partly a reflection on our beliefs about the American dream—the idea that our potential for happiness is intricately tied to our freedom to pursue wealth.

When you consider that 80 percent of the country thinks they will one day become rich, when in reality less than 10 percent will, it makes sense that many people live life like a race. We’re competing to beat the odds.

We think we must work harder and longer than the majority, squeeze more into our day than other people, if we’re to amass a fortune so we can escape the drudgery of work as we know it.

That perception turns the present into something to endure instead of something to fully enjoy.

Our working reality doesn’t have to be so painful that we can’t wait to escape it. If we follow our bliss, we can fill our days with work that stretches us, fulfills us, and endows life with a whole new level of meaning. And in terms of money leading to happiness, it only works that way if you’re already happy.

Take my friend, for example. She is a lovely person who unfortunately fills her time focusing on everything her life lacks. She frequently comments, “I’d be happier if I didn’t have to work,” or “I’d be happier if I didn’t have bills,” or “I’d be happier if I had my own place.”

She spins her wheels trying to create a world that allows her to kick back and breathe, but odds are, if she found herself in that place she’d have no idea how to appreciate it.

We all need to decide for ourselves what the dream really looks like. There are likely parts of it you have to work for, and parts of it that require no more than tuning into what you already have.

Productivity and Effectiveness

The irony in our tendency to do more to become more is that efficiency does not necessarily guarantee effectiveness. Completing the items on your to-do list does not inherently imply you’ve done them well. Getting more done is not an accurate barometer for measuring your impact.

In fact, squeezing more into your day often detracts from your ability to be effective in each situation. What would make a day more valuable to your intentions: twenty actions that moved you one foot closer to the change you’d like to see or five actions that moved you ten feet closer?

Whenever we expel energy, it’s important to consider the law of diminishing returns. This economic theory states that after a certain point, increased investment will not necessarily generate proportional returns.

So for example, if you run a telemarketing company, and you have five phones, hiring ten employees won’t yield double the sales because there isn’t enough equipment to go around. In much the same way, if you spend ten hours working, but every hour after five your performance declines, half of your time will be far less effective than you intend it to be.

Another thing to consider is whether or not you’re being effective in achieving what you actually want. Sometimes we can feel certain we know what we want to do only to later realize we were trying to please something else, or doing what we thought we should do, or failing to be honest with ourselves.

I grew up thinking I wanted to become a famous actress. It wasn’t until I got sick and spent a prolonged amount of time in a hospital that I realized what I really wanted was validation.

For me, time incapacitated was the most effective time of my life because I established what I really desired—both personally and professionally. The experience of not doing helped me better understand what I actually wanted to do.

Think about what it is you’re really seeking and what might be the most direct path to get it. Then realize that sometimes doing less can actually pave the path to experiencing more—more satisfaction, more ease, and even more effectiveness.

Productivity and Happiness

Contrary to conventional wisdom, research suggests that happiness leads to success, not the other way around, meaning it would benefit us to shift our focus from achieving future happiness to accessing that joy right now.

Think about how we experience life when we’re focused on getting things done. When you concentrate all your energy on completing tasks, how much of those chores do you experience mindfully? How much joy do you derive from an activity you see as an obstacle between where you are and where you’d like to be?

When we wrap our days around things we have to do we leave very little time for the things we want to do. Happiness requires a balance.

We need time with the people we love. We need space to do the things we enjoy without any agenda other than having fun. We need opportunities to disconnect our minds and experience the world with childlike curiosity and wonder. All of this requires us to whittle away at our busyness.

What is the Alternative to Busyness?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t have and pursue goals. I’m also not suggesting we should find ways to avoid work. We can transform ourselves and our lives not just through the results of our labor but through the efforts themselves.

For example, the process of maintaining this site fulfills me regardless of who reads it. The doing is in itself the reward.

We can all create a reality that is not just a means but an end in itself. It starts by asking ourselves a few very important questions to be sure our efforts support our true intentions:

  • What is it you really want to accomplish?
  • What can you do today that supports your deepest passions?
  • If you knew your days were numbered, how much time would you want to devote to activities that have nothing to do with striving and achieving?
  • Our days are numbered, so why not start creating that type of balance now?

Photo by kellyv

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • Great post, it came at the right time, since I was just proud of my busy week xD Also it showed me how important small and concise paragraphs are =)

  • Faith

    This was explained ever so eloquently in Benjamin Hoff’s book “The Tao of Pooh” where Hoff described those who are incessantly busy as “Bisy Backson” for the note they would hang on their door “Busy, back soon”. Pooh interpreted the note as to be the name of the individual living there and was perplexed as to how the person could be happy if they were always busy.

    Hoff went on to explain…

    “Bisy Backson confuses exercise with work and activity with creativity.”
    “The Bisy Backson is almost desperately active.”
    “Let’s put it this way: if you want to be healthy, relaxed, and contented, just watch what a Bisy Backson does and then do the opposite.”

    Sage advice.

  • heather

    u used “then” for “than”, but i enjoyed it.

  • 🙂
    This is very cool. I wrote about being busy on my blog two weeks ago.

    If there is anything to add to your post and mine, it’s that if we’re going to be busy, let’s do it collectively.

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  • Melanie Abel

    I love your posts, this one especially resonates with me. Happiness for me is being in the moment and enjoying it for what it is, regardless of how “productive” it is. Keep posting, reading your blog is one of the highlights of my day 🙂

  • Nawaf Almutawa

    I loved it, as if you were talking to me personally.

    Thanks for the great post.

  • Thanks, Lori. Last night I gazed at the stars for hours. We were having a meteor shower in Maui. In the silence and simplicity of this scene a little voice whispered to me “stop trying to do so much, slow down, you will be much happier.” Your post is the confirmation to my spirits whisper. Mahalo.

  • Anonymous

    Great post Lori,

    It’s so true, we spend too much time with our heads down, working towards a future we may never fully appreciate. If we spend more time focusing on our work, rather than focusing on ourselves, there’s a real chance our joys may be diluted.

    I think there’s so much emphasis on working hard to achieve success that we never truly understand in order to be successful, we must first appreciate and experience the present as much as possible.

    Work smart and play hard 😉

  • Mellie Owen

    I have just moved to a new place and finding myself lost with what to do with myself……. Any suggestions…… Besides exercise…..

  • Luka

    This website is amazing, very insightful article. Thank you. I am going to use in an essay I am working on for Uni … x

  • Fabulous post!! This comes on the heels of my seeing the documentary film, Race To Nowhere. Same themes resonating – pressuring our kids towards performance, productivity, competition; and ultimately all this pressure causing illness, anxiety and depression and high suicide rates among our children/teens. And all for what – in the guise of success and happiness as defined by wealth, status. We need to do a lot of revamping and deep searching in terms of our societal and educational values. Technology may be way ahead; but humaness is falling by the wayside – way behind.

  • Hi Alison,

    I’ve never seen a meteor shower–that must have been really cool to see! I’ve been thinking a lot about busy-ness now that I’m home for the holidays. I always take a lot more time to just be when I’m around my family. Happy holidays to you =)


  • That sounds like a fascinating documentary! I think most people honestly believe money would solve all their problems. And yet there’s all this research about lottery winners who end up depressed, incarcerated, and suicidal.

    “Technology may be way ahead; but humaness is falling by the wayside – way behind.” I hear you on this. I think it’s so important for us to have these conversations about slowing down instead of chasing happiness in money, things, and achievement. Technology is supposed to make life simpler, but it’s up to us to allow that.

  • Thanks Luka! I’m so glad you enjoy Tiny Buddha. =)

  • Hi Mellie,

    Where did you move? Do you know anyone where you live? I could help provide some ideas if you gave me a little more information!


  • Well said! Success without enjoyment isn’t really success.

  • You’re most welcome–thanks for reading!

  • Great post Long! Thanks for sharing your link here. It looks like we’re on the same page. =)

  • Thanks Heather. I appreciate that you pointed that out!

  • Thanks Heather. I appreciate that you pointed that out!

  • Hi Faith,

    I have to get that book now. I particularly liked this part: “Bisy Backson confuses exercise with work and activity with creativity.” Thank you for sharing this!


  • Hi Faith,

    I have to get that book now. I particularly liked this part: “Bisy Backson confuses exercise with work and activity with creativity.” Thank you for sharing this!


  • Thanks Phil. I’m glad this post was helpful to you!

  • Have you been following me around? Lol! This sounds exactly like me! Great post, as always. 😀

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  • Faith

    My pleasure. Enjoy!

  • Great read – busy vs effective – busy & happy (?) – I’ve been totally thinking about this lately. And yes, while we are busy, we have more control than we give ourselves credit for.

    Bookmarked & Followed! Thank you!

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  • Babystar52000

    Thank-you. I think I made one of the biggest mistake in my life because I hunger for the glory of being busy, because I thought it meant success. But only now do I understand happiness leds to success & your post explained it beautifully! Only if this was here earlier. I’m trying to look forward now and find my happiness again. Thank-you again!

  • Daizey1024

    This post really resonates with me. I find that if I don’t make a point to slow down and be present, life begins to feel like a giant to-do list. And when the focus becomes simply checking things off that list, so many special moments and opportunities for growth are overlooked in the quest to get things done. We all must find our own pace and resist the urge to keep up with the dizzying pace of the world.

  • I know that feeling! There’s something satisfying about checking something off a list as done, but it’s far more liberating to do something I enjoy without needing to make a note that I’ve completed it. I guess it’s all about balance–doing the things we have to do, the things we want to to, and the ones that overlap, and learning to experience presence and joy throughout all of it

  • I’m glad you found this helpful! This has been a major theme in my life, as I suspect is has for a lot of people. Wishing you love and light along your journey!

  • Thanks Kris. I see this is a topic you’re passionate about. =)

  • Indeed Mallory! =) Thanks for reading. I’m glad you found this helpful!

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  • Too Bisy to read

    Years ago I was walking down the street and I found that book just sitting there near the sidewalk, left by a wise kind soul. It was just the thing I needed to read at that time in my life. It is a profound read and I recommend it to anyone. I hope you really find the time to read it some day.

  • Matt

    Hmn.. Interestring post!

    I’ve recently read some other similar posts from different blogs, they basically agree with you in all you said. There’s something I’ve noticed in all these posts that make me feel you’re missing part of the truth, and I would like to know what you think about it.

    I think it all starts with this simple question: “How much joy do you derive from an activity you see as an obstacle between where you are and where you’d like to be?”

    For what I understood you (and many other writers) are assuming most people DO see the activities they do the whole day as an obstacle -or something different- to what they really want to do. That’s not true in all cases…

    What if what you do ALL DAY LONG is completely aligned to achieving whatever you want to achieve? What if you don’t consider these activities as an obstacle and you see them as the next step in the correct direction, something NECESSARY?

    In this case I find it genuinely valid to try to do as much as you can as long as you can. Do you slow down? Do you invest time doing something just for fun? Do you take the risk? You may lost the opportunity you were waiting for…

    Btw, I’m sorry for commenting on a 3 years old post!! 🙂

    Thanks you Lori,
    Matt – a full time CS student

  • Hi Matt,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts! You bring up a great point.

    I was referring to the mindset that compels a lot of us to be busy for the sake of getting somewhere else–a place where we make more money, feel more successful, etc. I think a lot of times, we end up doing this even when we’re doing something we actually we want to do, because we’re programmed to look to the future for happiness.

    Now, I’m sure there are lots of other people who simply enjoy being busy. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We all get to choose what we value and how we spend our time. Ultimately, we all need to ask ourselves: Am I creating the type of balance that honors of preferences, needs, and priorities?

    So, regarding what you wrote here: Do you slow down? Do you invest time doing something just for fun? Do you take the risk? You may lost the opportunity you were waiting for…

    That’s up to each of us based on what we value.

    Incidentally, you may find this post interesting:

    Thanks for taking the time to write!


  • Alec Sevins

    A lot of modern busyness is tied to the frenzy of economic growthism; the false notion that the human population can perpetually grow and consume ever-more resources on this finite planet. Look at the obsession with GDP and constantly building more houses. It’s insane when you run the math and study physical carrying-capacity. But the debt-based money system demands it. Growthism is so ingrained in society that it’s hard to find work not tethered to it somehow.

  • Holly Stewart

    I love that John Lennon quote! It is so true. I also like the point you made about happiness leading to success and not the other way around. I agree that so many people get this wrong.

  • Peter Bridges

    Good Words. Thank you.