Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

The Neuroscience of Busyness

In a paper published last month in the journal Nature (summary), a group of scientists from the University of Virginia reported on a series of experiments designed to assess how we solve problems. When presented with a challenging scenario, humans cannot evaluate every possible solution, so we instead deploy heuristics to prune this search space down to a much smaller number of promising candidates. As this paper demonstrates,  when engaged in this pruning, we’re biased toward solutions that add components instead of those that subtract them.

This quirk in our mental processing matters. Potentially a lot. As the authors of the paper conjecture:

“Defaulting to searches for additive changes may be one reason that people struggle to mitigate overburdened schedules, institutional red tape, and damaging effects on the planet.”

As I read about this finding, I couldn’t help but also think about the epidemic of chronic overload that currently afflicts so many knowledge workers. The volume of obligations on our proverbial plates — vague projects, off-hand promises, quick calls and small tasks — continues to increase at an alarming rate. There was a time, not that long ago, when the standard response to the query, “How are you?”, was an innocuous “fine”; today, it’s rare to encounter someone who doesn’t instead respond with a weary “busy.”

Does the wiring of our brains play a role in this reality?

I hadn’t thought about this possibility before, but this new paper raises some intriguing possibilities. The collision of knowledge work (a new thing) with the digital age (an even newer thing) disrupted the professional world, making many office jobs more haphazard and improvisational than ever before. Confronted with this novelty, perhaps our brains fell back to a default answer: do more!

Like the subjects in the experiments reported in this recent paper, however, the best solution to these problems might often instead be to do less. You want more out of your employees? Radically reduce their responsibilities, then leave them alone to execute. You want your small business to grow? Focus your attention on a single target, and give yourself the space to do it better.

Clearly brain biases are not the only factor involved in explaining the growth of busyness culture, but it’s a partial explanation that’s worth (if you’ll excuse the pun) keeping in mind.

(Hat tip: Jesse)

17 thoughts on “The Neuroscience of Busyness”

  1. Using university institutions as an example, a clear solution to overworked laborers (ie professors) is to hire more laborers. But since teaching and research positions have been cut or diverted to admin over time, then the remaining laborers have to work in a more busy fashion to compensate.

    Imagine you were a university president and said, “From the university level on down to each department, we are going to fire 10-20% of our admin because, after all, admin today are more productive than ever due to technological marvels such as email and Zoom. Those fired will free up money for a mass hiring of teachers and researchers equal to the number of admin fired.”

    Can you imagine the reaction? The budget cuts and increase of admin are hurting the productivity of the institution. A less “efficient” university that had extra professors, research assistants, etc. would be more expensive, less efficient, AND importantly, a much nicer place to work since more people would share the load.

    • Why not fire professors? The industry I worked for a decade and a half had this cut throat annual pruning regardless of “work load”. It usually ends up better because people prioritize, drop useless work and become more efficient.

  2. I read about this paper on Scientific American, a fortnight ago, I guess. The idea seemed fascinating and it appeared like, not only knowledge work, this notion can be applied to every job. Be it research, writing, freelancing, etc. You name it and ‘Less is More’ catches up. Wanna put quality? Do a smaller number of tasks.

    This study, once again, points to the crucial and certainly underappreciated idea of ‘Less is More’ (the study itself didn’t make this conjecture but it appears like that). And the study was designed in such a way (I mean, the method) that the outcomes are nontrivially compelling.

    Great to see that you brought this thing up in your post. Thanks!

    • Exactly. Taleb says:

      “Via negativa: In theology and philosophy, the focus on what something is not, an indirect definition. In action, it is a recipe for what to avoid, what not to do—subtraction, not addition, say, in medicine.”

      In medicine that’s quite obvious: Quit smoking for example. Would save far more lifes than most drugs. Or stop eating sugar.

      It relates to decision making also: You don’t know what’s going to work, but maybe you can say, what definitely won’t. Avoid really bad decisions is a good start.

      Values: What values cause harm in the world and your personal life? Stop living them.

      Personal life: Often times we know what behavior causes harm. We could start to eliminate that. Instead we often choose to put on top.

      Solitude: We believe more input is better. But often it is not.

      Training: More training = more gaining? I doubt it.

      The list goes on…

      I’m exited to hear more from you Cal about the via negative in the context of knowledge work.

      “In practice it is the negative that’s used by the pros, those selected by evolution: chess grandmasters usually win by not losing; people become rich by not going bust (particularly when others do); religions are mostly about interdicts; the learning of life is about what to avoid. You reduce most of your personal risks of accident thanks to a small number of measures.” – Taleb (again)

  3. Couldn’t agree more! So true about everyone sayin’ they’re busy all the time. But this recent phenomena helps me with my pseudo part-time job!

  4. True. Here in Sweden it is a good thing to be very busy at work. Imagine someone answering “I´m not that busy right now. It´s kinda calm at work” to the question “How´s work?”. Also – if you are not busy, your work is at risk. Downward spiral.

    Nice post Cal. Thanks.

  5. Perhaps this is a pipe dream, but I believe (or hope) that the cult of busyness will soon begin to collapse in on itself due to it being unsustainable in terms of mental and physical health.

    I daydream of a time when the standard response to ‘How are you?’ is not an over-caffeinated and manic eyed ‘GREAT!’ or the aforementioned bone-weary ‘Busy’ but a calmer and more humane humble acknowledgement of contentment because the responder hasn’t been running around in a futile circle all week.

    To that end, in the spirit of trying to be a good mimetic model, and because I am an idler, I try to answer such questions in that manner. Because it’s the truth. I’m not especially busy because I strive to eliminate such nonsense.

    So part of the problem is performative. People signal busyness because that’s what the world currently values. And what you project, signal and affirm has a way of becoming true. The old ‘fake it ‘til you make it’

    It takes a small amount of moral courage to not play the game of oneupmanship when it comes to signalling how hard you are working. But subtraction, rather than addition, seems to be the only way out of this mess, even if our brains are biased the other way.


  6. Reading this post resonated with one of my takeaways from your interview with Greg McKeown. Start with zero and then build the process. What do you need to do and what are the requirements and then build the path to get there. The productivity zeitgeist that I’ve been tapping into usually talks about adding tools and techniques to existing organizational and productivity philosophy and the conversation about reducing and evaluating current structures should often be the first step. When I first got into productivity I was systematically approaching many things and adding more tools, bells, and whistles to my processes. Now I am trying to deconstruct, evaluate, and really decide what is needed in my productivity edifice.

    The idea of business I think stems from taking many things onto our plate and not knowing everything on our tray. As individuals, we need to take a step back and think about what we put on our plate and realize that we are carrying trays with multiple plates. Being selective is key. Procedurally, it goes into everything you’ve talked about in the podcast and the productivity funnel you mentioned in a recent podcast episode is a good lens to work through what plate to focus on first.

    Thanks for sharing this article! As the quarter comes to an end I am going to be evaluating my current productivity systems and think about what I need to tweak, change, and keep the same. After self-reflection that will guide me on what I need to remove then I can focus on adding.

  7. “additive solutions have sort of a privileged status—they tend to come to mind quickly and easily,” says Benjamin Converse, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the study. “Subtractive solutions are not necessarily harder to consider, but they take more effort to find.” (

    A good explanation how we are avoiding efforts in thinking can be found in Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”

  8. “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


Leave a Comment