The Busyness Trap, the lead article in the March-April 2023 issue of The Harvard Business Review (HBR), recounts how when the CEO of a Finnish performance coaching firm asked people, ‘how are you’, nearly eight out of 10 replied ‘Busy’. The article suggests that the reason for this, as well as a plethora of similar stories, is that busyness has become a virtue in the Western world in large part, fuelled by corporate culture, which, like law firms promoting associates with the most billable hours, encourages a rat-race mentality leading to employee burnout and inefficiency. Once a culture of busyness is established, it tends to persist unchallenged; workers ‘go on automatic’ and unquestioningly follow legacy rules and procedures. The article suggests the busyness morass, which unwittingly also shrinks corporate profits, is down to ‘bad habits’, which can be rectified by corporate good governance. I suggest that whilst Heidegger might agree that corporate culture is partly behind this muddle, he would argue that the roots of it go much deeper than ‘bad habits’.
Heidegger believed that man was estranged from Being, the essence of his vital self (Barrett, 207). Thus, ‘Dasein’, Heidegger’s term for how the truth of Being is revealed through the unfolding of man’s possibilities regarding everyday-world experiences and choices over a lifetime – was the primary theme of Heidegger’s epic work, Being and Time (Avens, 20). Heidegger might argue that the tendency for today’s workers to ‘go on automatic’ is a stark example of what he coined ‘they-self’, the default and inauthentic mode in which Dasein conforms to cultural customs and expectations, rather than in keeping with personal needs and desires (Watts, 83). The HBR article suggests that employees rarely resist when organisations encourage busyness irrespective of what it achieves, which they often do because busyness has become such a status symbol. Yet it appears that busyness involves more than cultural conformance; it is a symptom of what behavioural scientists have termed ‘idleness aversion’, a psychological principle suggesting people are happiest when busy. The article cites a study suggesting that people would do anything ‘reasonably justifiable’, including disassembling and reassembling a bracelet, rather than waiting idly for 15 minutes. In corporate culture, ‘idleness aversion’ translates into shallow, make-work tasks and projects. The article concludes that corporations can ‘beat back’ the ‘scourge’ of busyness by changing corporate policies to reward output rather than activity, eliminate low-value work, and encourage time off.
Again, Heidegger might disagree. He might suggest that ‘idleness aversion’ is nigh impossible to ‘beat back’; it stems from Dasein’s primordial need to avoid anxiety. Anxiety results from disrupting Dasein’s habitual Being-in-the-world (Watts, 41) and how Dasein customarily deals with everyday concerns (Greaves, 70). In the face of anxiety, familiarity fades. The everyday world in which Dasein has been navigating withdraws. Perspective broadens—new possibilities for future experiences and choices are exposed (Greaves, 71). Dasein’s usual approach to anxiety is to sink further into the comfort of ‘they-self’, in this case, the corporate culture of busyness in which they’ve been immersed. Nonetheless, the call of conscience – the primordial sense that ‘they-self’ is not one’s only option – hovers, destined to return on future occasions (Watts, 50).
Arguably, the recent Covid-19 pandemic, which brought unprecedented global social and economic disorder in our time, provided such an occasion; Dasein’s habitual Being-in-the-world, corporate and otherwise, was seriously disrupted. But the HBR article reports that the pandemic failed to shake Dasein’s aversion to idleness. Contrary to employer fears that working remotely as the result of the pandemic would result in slacking off, it prompted employees to work longer hours, creating more unnecessary work and stretching the time it took to do the necessary work. Heidegger would likely not be surprised. He might suggest this result is a perfect example of the ‘chattering’ ‘they-self’, which saps our courage to accept the inevitability of our own deaths, the end of Being (Watts, 47).
During the pandemic, death was foremost in the minds of many. But for most, death remained something happening not to them but to someone else. Although Heidegger believed accepting one’s own death as a constant possibility would provide Dasein with an escape from inauthenticity, such acceptance would not be achieved by ‘idle curiosity’ and ‘indifference’ (Watts, 36). In other words, as did most, gorging on the non-stop coverage of the pandemic, Netflix, and computer games was another expression of busyness, of inauthenticity. Since the disruption to Dasein’s Being-in-the World caused by a catastrophe the magnitude of the Covid-19 pandemic failed to end the scourge of busyness, serious corporations must take a new and novel tact.
They should develop healthier, more profitable avenues for employee expressions of busyness. Heidegger would likely agree that those who have not answered the call of conscience due to the pandemic will continue functioning in ‘they-self’ mode, conforming to cultural customs and expectations. It only makes sense for corporations wishing to rid themselves of the current costs of busyness to reinvent their cultural customs and expectations. But I suggest this will not be achieved, as the article recommends, by changing a few policies. I suggest it requires nothing short of a complete change of culture.
The HBR article notes that the busyness culture reflects a ‘marked change from bygone eras’. At least in the United States, bygone eras did not admire men and women for how busy they were but for what they achieved. Consider the classic American myth of the ‘self-made’ man, an archetypal ‘rags to riches’ story (Booker, 51-68) where the hero maximises his personal wealth in a minimal amount of time (Paul, 367-379); think Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish American industrialist who is quoted as saying “I felt my foot was upon the ladder and that I was bound to climb”, JD Rockefeller, an American oil magnate, who despite is corrupt business practices, is admired by Americans as an ‘impressive specimen’ even today (Paul, 378), and Barrack Obama, who appropriated the cultural script of the ‘white success mythology’ to become the first black American president (Paul, 396).
In the 21st century, when traditional factors thought to form the bedrock of a uniform, stable culture spill across geo-political boundaries, Grosby (29) digs deeper into history. He suggests that an underlying myth or shared belief is the most basic factor distinguishing sustainable cultures. Thus successful cultural stability is achieved by creating a collective self-consciousness in which the participants of the ‘same evolving tradition’ are contained and sustained in their social relations (Grosby, 9-10). Watts (34-6) explains that not only does Heidegger’s ‘they’ instil men with the sense of who they are, but also of belonging. Unsurprisingly, then, Heidegger concluded that ‘they-self’, or one’s mode of living in sync with one’s culture, was a necessary and fundamental element of Dasein; in other words, ‘they-self’ will not disappear, so why not use it to our advantage?
Grosby (60) reminds us that national myths gain power through shared beliefs, both of a collective past and collective goals for the future. Although it may not be possible even if desirable – to return to the American myth of the self-made man as originally formulated, it still lingers in the American collective self-consciousness. It wields power (Grosby, 10). Paul (367-379) suggests that operative elements of this myth include economic reward and social mobility through ‘feverish’ personal effort; it is not for nothing that the right to the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is enshrined in the American Constitution, which itself is linked to its Lockean counterpart, the ‘pursuit of property’.
Certainly, not everyone is interested in becoming a ‘rags-to-riches’ American-style hero. But, given that the cult of busyness is characterised first and foremost by feverish personal effort, seemingly stemming from ‘idleness aversion’, which Heidegger might remind everyone is hard-wired into Dasein, it is safe to suggest that a corporate culture that firmly directs employees’ feverish efforts towards an end benefitting all parties involved may win the day. But this must go beyond simply shifting to performance-based pay, which, as the HBR article notes, often discourages innovation. Far better would be an employee engagement which stimulates innovation – one which would tap into Heidegger’s notion of authenticity, a mode of existence where “I am aware of my own self and my own possibilities, and thus choose my own way of life” (Watts, 51). Heidegger assures us that authenticity is a far deeper and more meaningful experience of the significance of existence (Watts, 51).
In conclusion, marrying (1) authentic individual employee needs and desires to the (2) inauthentic ‘they-self’ international corporate culture would benefit everyone involved. Heidegger believed Dasein was capable of bridging both (Greaves, 62). But corporate good governance and policy change alone will not achieve this; cultural revision building upon and modifying a strong existing American tradition capturing the essence, or Being, of men like Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Barack Obama can be achieved. Regarding cultural tradition, a selective appropriation of the past in service of present concerns has a long, successful history (Grosby, 32). Given that, as Heidegger might argue, busyness is an a priori element of Dasein, man’s way of Being, it is sensible to direct busyness to a beneficial end for all involved rather than try to eliminate it.
Avens, Roberts (2003). The New Gnosis: Heidegger, Hillman, and Angels. Thompson, CT: Spring Publications.
Barrett, William (1990). Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy. New York: Random House.
Booker, Christopher (2004). The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. London: Continuum.
Greaves, Tom (2010). Starting with Heidegger. London: Continuum.
Grosby, Steven (2005). Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Paul, Heike (2014). The Myths that Made America: An Introduction to American Studies [Electronic Version] Deutsche Nationalibiothek.
Watts, Michael (2014). Heidegger: An Essential Guide for Beginners. Hodder & Stoughton Educational [Kindle Version] Retrieved from Amazon.com
Waytz, Adam (2023). “Beware a Culture of Busyness: Organizations must stop conflating activity with achievement.” Harvard Business Review, vol. 101, no 2, pp. 58-67.