Illustration: Script and Seal

You might call it the mantra of the modern knowledge worker: “I’m so busy.” And busyness is a problem, at least among employees in white-collar jobs: The percentage of Americans working 60 to 70 hours per week, and feeling more stressed and squeezed while doing it, has never been greater. That stress reaches into leisure time, at least for those who still have some. More and more people are foregoing vacations and leery of taking any time off at all.

This problem is not new, and it’s not confined to the U.S. Back in 1970, Staffan Burenstam Linder, a Swedish economist and politician, wrote The Harried Leisure Class, which predicted that, as wages increased, the resource of time-as-unit-of-doing-nothing—sitting back and thinking, taking a walk in the park, looking your lover in the eyes—would diminish. As a result, those higher wage earners would become, well, harried. All signs point to Linder’s predictions having been prescient.

Everyone from corporate leaders to journalists are taking note. In the past few years, a plethora of pieces, from The New York Times’s “The ‘Busy’ Trap” to The New Yorker’s “No Time” and countless others, have documented the disease. The “more hours, less time” phenomenon, with its negative effect on happiness and zero-to-negative effect on productivity, deserves deeper analysis, especially since it seems to be largely preventable. How, then, did we get here?

According to Bradley Staats, associate professor of operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, part of the blame lies in a growing overemphasis by managers on what’s commonly referred to as the “bias for action”. The term originates from Thomas Peters and Robert Waterman’s widely influential 1982 book The Search for Excellence, which found that, among seven other qualities, the top-performing organizations chose action over analysis. At the time, Peters and Waterman, then both McKinsey & Co. consultants, observed that too many global organizations were falling into an “analysis-paralysis” trap, engaging in ineffectually long periods of planning instead of rapid experimentation. The authors were, in many ways, prophetic. Today, the essence of “agile” and “lean” organizational philosophies—which prize the notions of failing fast, rapid prototyping, and the “perpetual beta,” to borrow from Google—are, indeed, based on taking action over waiting for a perfect analysis.

But, in Staats’s view, we’ve taken the bias for action too far. “Large organizations can kind of grind to a halt because they're just so afraid to do anything. But we also have to appreciate that the opposite side of that is true, too,” he says. “Today, we actually have… our research would suggest… a bias for action in the sense of movement, but not necessarily in the sense of real progress.” In other words, we notice that something needs to be improved, and so we get busy improving it without reference to a clearly conceived strategy.

In our haste to act for the sake of action, to produce for the sake of productivity, we lose a lot, Staats says, including the capacity for reflection, which, according to his research, actually leads to productivity gains. In a November 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Organizations Don’t Learn,” co-written with Francensca Gino, Staats discusses, a large Indian technology firm that studied two groups of new employees during their first few days of training. From the sixth to the 16th day of training, one group took 15 minutes to reflect on what they had learned each day. The other didn’t. In the end, the reflective group won by a wide margin, performing 20 percent better on the final technical exam. What’s more, the same research team found similar results among college students and employees across a range of organizations.

Their findings suggest that reflection has two other close relatives in the productivity family: planning and downtime. In the case of the former, Staats, along with UK colleagues Julia Lee and Jon Jachimowicz, encouraged commuters, via text messaging, to plan for their days ahead on the way to work. The result, as he reported in his Harvard Business Review article, was “happier, less burned-out, and more productive than people in a control group.”

As much as planning for and reflecting on work may help increase performance, though, so too does their opposite, doing nothing at all. Staats and team analyzed employee data from a large tomato-processing company, where workers on 12-hour shifts, enjoyed not only scheduled breaks but also frequently unexpected forced downtime, usually due to equipment failure. What their research uncovered was eye-opening. On the days when they had unexpected breaks—often “losing” up to an hour in labor time—they were, overall, more productive. Not relatively more productive per hour, but absolutely more productive per day. As Staats puts it: “They're more productive in 11 hours with a break than in 12 hours without a break.”

If Staats, the professor, has the quantitative research to prove the importance of practices such as reflection, planning, and downtime, then Jason Fried, the entrepreneur, has the anecdotal evidence to justify waging war against their archenemies: the unending distractions and disruptions that knowledge workers face every day in the form of meeting marathons, instant messages, and barrages of emails questionably but conspicuously flagged as “urgent”.


According to Fried, author of the best-selling Rework and CEO of Basecamp, a popular project management platform, “It’s not that there is more work to do. It’s that people can’t get their work done during the day.” That’s why Fried believes that one of the most important roles for leaders—from chief executives like himself all the way down to project managers on the front lines—is to respect their employees’ time during the workday.

Fried has been putting those principles into practice at Basecamp, in which founder Jeff Bezos acquired a minority stake in 2006. Employees who live nearby—many don’t—are not obligated to come into its offices in downtown Chicago, but when they do, they must abide by what Fried calls “library rules.”

“We have a culture where we treat our space how people would treat a library,” he explains. “You are quiet, respectful, and don’t talk in loud voices—people are here to learn and read.”

The office’s hip, minimalist design reinforces the message. The entranceway at Basecamp is in fact a library. On each floor there are a handful of small, private phone booths where employees can go to make both work and personal calls. There are also multiple conference rooms where small groups can hold meetings. Felt covers the walls to keep the talk from bothering others.

There’s also Fried’s policy on scheduled meetings—another radical departure from the corporate norm. Except for emergencies, they are all but banned. He says the conventional wisdom that good decisions need to be made by eight people around a table is not just wrong but also expensive: in total, eight hours of actual work time for a “one-hour” meeting. “We mostly just discuss things with smaller groups when we need to,” Fried says. “That eliminates waiting around for the next thing to happen, so things move more fluently.”

Fried acknowledges that his efforts to reduce distractions may be extreme, but he says there are also smaller steps companies can take that can have big payoffs. For example, instead of “Casual Fridays,” Fried proposes that companies adopt “Talkless Thursdays”—at least one afternoon a month in which all office conversations and meetings are banned so employees can focus on what they’re there to do: their work. He also urges those who can to cancel meetings whenever possible—or at the very least, schedule them at the beginning or end of the day so employees have between two and four hours of uninterrupted time during the work day to focus on their assignments.

Whether or not you buy into Fried’s decidedly bold brand of workplace austerity, one thing is clear: Productivity often begins at the top. “Leaders,” Staats says, “set the rules of engagement.” Too often, the rules are: work harder, stay later, email on nights and weekends, and answer everything immediately.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that American knowledge workers find themselves in a harried state. The good news is that the solution isn’t surprising either, residing mainly in bosses who realize that more time doesn’t equal more value and who, as a result, design workplaces, practices, and norms that encourage reflection, planning, downtime, and the ever-elusive but never-more-valuable holy grail of unfettered focus.