Columbia Business School

Busy? You Must Be Important

Presented by Columbia Business School

busy professional

We’re all so terribly busy these days — just ask us.

Whether it’s because we’re caught up in the “undisciplined pursuit of more” or we just like humblebragging on Twitter about all the amazing stuff we’re squeezing into our days, busyness has become central to how we relate to others and ourselves. We’ve grown “addicted to busyness,” Tim Kreider wrote in the New York Times last year — a notion seemingly confirmed by the endless stream of articles on just how busy we are and what it all means. Having zero time — or at least talking about how we do — has become a national pastime.

If it seems at times that our obsession with busyness has less to do with our calendars and more to do with our egos, there’s a reason for that says Silvia Bellezza. “Compared to our grandparents, we have more access to luxury,” Bellezza, an assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School explains. “The wealthier middle class has increased the demand for luxury products, and there’s more supply of these goods because of mass production. If everyone has access to these luxuries, they stop giving off signals.”

It’s a major shift from the nineteenth century, when economist Thorstein Veblen developed his theory of the leisure class — and the conspicuous consumption of non-productive time.

Back then, there was nothing like not working to prove you were a big shot, but a new paper by Bellezza, Anat Keinan of Harvard Business School, and Neeru Paharia of Georgetown shows just how much busyness has become a status symbol. Through a series of experiments, Bellezza and her co-authors found that survey respondents consistently attributed higher status and a more aspirational image to people with packed schedules.

“When I say I’m busy, I convey status not through what I’m wearing,” says Bellezza. “but by signaling that I’m something that’s very scarce. I’m communicating that I’m high status because of the intrinsic value of myself and my human capital. It’s a more sophisticated and nuanced strategy than signaling through products. It’s about our intelligence and our inner-characteristics.”

In the paper, Bellezza attributes this in part to the rise of “knowledge-intensive economies” that have developed over the last century. Today’s workers—especially those with white-collar jobs—are no longer interchangeable cogs in the machine that led Veblen to describe even the most basic labor as “menial contamination.” The modern labor market rewards talented and ambitious individuals who aren’t afraid of long hours.

“Headhunters are looking for the best talent, companies are looking for the best people,” Bellezza says. “These mechanisms were there 50 years ago. They just weren’t as pronounced.”

That’s at least partially down to the rise of social media. “Most signaling used to be done through products,” Bellezza says. “People had to be with us to see them. Now, it’s costless for me to tell the world I’m working all the time.”

While highly specialized job markets and the widespread availability of luxury goods aren’t unique to the United States, Bellezza’s paper suggests that there’s a cultural dimension to the cult of crammed calendars. Americans prize busyness more than their European counterparts. In one experiment, Bellezza surveyed people in the United States and her native Italy to get their thoughts on a 35-year-old male described as either having a full schedule or living a “leisurely lifestyle.” Italian respondents were far more impressed by the guy with time on his hands.

“In Europe, it’s almost like you have a right to leisure,” explains Bellezza, adding that many Italians frequently take the entire month of August off and are expected to return in September looking relaxed. “In the United States,” she explains by contrast, “if you come back tan from some tropical place, it’s almost like you’ve got to hide it. Work is seen as the thing that defines a person.”

Even in the United States, though, busyness won’t always earn you a status boost in the eyes of others. Agency is a key factor.

“It’s very important for the behavior to be perceived as intentional,” Bellezza says. “If it’s clear these people are working just to make ends meet, the positive inferences disappear right away. But if it’s understood that these people are just so in demand — that they choose to have no free time — that’s when higher status inference comes in.”

The researchers’ findings aren’t just relevant to those looking to further polish their social media presence though, Bellezza continues.

In one experiment, Bellezza and her colleagues showed survey-takers two different ads for a common rubber exercise ball. In one, the product was praised for allowing consumers to multi-task, while the other focused on its fashionability. Respondents attributed higher status to the woman in the “busy lifestyle” ad, and they had similar reactions to people who wore Bluetooth headsets or ordered groceries through a delivery service for similar reasons.

Brands looking to flatter consumers then would do better to highlight their customers’ busy lives than to cultivate an image of luxuriant indolence.

Silvia Bellezza is an Assistant Professor of Marketing at Columbia Business School. Her research focuses on consumer behavior and symbolic consumption–how consumers use products and brands to express who they are and signal status.

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