Studying Busy Work

Would you rather do nothing or do something that serves no purpose?

While people are happy when they are idle, University of Chicago researchers discovered that most people, given even a flimsy excuse to be busy, will choose doing something over doing nothing.  People were happy when they were busy, even if they were forced to be busy or if the task had no apparent value.

In the study, students had a choice between delivering a completed questionnaire to a location that was a 15 minute round-trip walk away, or dropping it just outside the room and then waiting idly for 15 minutes. In both cases, they were rewarded with a piece of candy.

When the same candy was offered at both locations, 68% of the students chose the ‘lazy option’, dropping off the questionnaire just outside the room. However, if different candy was offered at each location, 59% chose the far away location – the one that kept them busy.  While this might be expected if the candy were somehow better, the same students had earlier found the candy equally appealing. 

Even though there was no obvious reason to walk to the far away location, the promise of something different seemed to motivate the students. When asked afterwards, the busy students who’d taken the walk reported feeling significantly happier than the idle students. The researchers attributed this to peoples’ preference to be busy, even for the slimmest of reasons.

In a variant of this study, the students were arbitrarily told which of the above two choices they had to take: forced in to busyness by walking 15 mins away or forced into idleness by waiting for 15 mins.  Despite the lack of choice and the identical reward, people were happier doing ‘busy work’.

Why do people prefer to be busy doing anything, even if it’s not something useful? The researchers speculate it may be rooted in human evolution:

In their strife for survival, human ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources; expending energy without purpose could have jeopardized survival. With modern means of production, however, most people today no longer expend much energy on basic survival needs, so they have excessive energy, which they like to release through action. Yet the long-formed tendency to conserve energy lingers, making people wary of expending effort without purpose.

In other words, we’re happier when we’re busy but our instinct is for idleness.

Knowing this, we can use it to our advantage.  Airports consistently get complaints about how long it takes for checked luggage to arrive at the carousel.   To offset this, some airports have deliberately increased the distance from the gates to the baggage carousel so as to reduce the time passengers spend waiting idly for luggage to arrive.  They don’t get their bags any sooner but they are happier because they are busy walking.

I notice this tendency in my own life.  When I’m in the car, I’m more likely to take a less travelled route even if it’s a few miles out of my way.  The idleness of traffic frustrates me; the sense of movement of an unclogged route makes me happier.  Even if I don’t get there any sooner.

Think about your own goals and actions.  Are you doing them because you need to or because you just want to keep busy?

4 Responses to Studying Busy Work

  1. Bob Champagne says:


    Btw…I think the candy might have actually had an effect because it was form of “variable” reinforcement (some level of uncertainty/ curiosity/ change) which has been proven to work better than predictable types and intervals. (works well in Perf Mgmt too in the reward/ consequence part of the process)

    As for the airports…god I hope they don’t read this blog. In fact I’ll bet DIA probably started this trend. Seriously, though, there are probably so many ways to accomplish this if “staying busy” is a factor in cust sat, all else being equal. Certainly ones that would require less capex 🙂

  2. Muthu Ranganathan says:

    Remember the proverb – “idle mind is devils workshop”, so doing something is better than being idle

  3. Jonathan says:

    Bob, I wonder if “staying busy” will hold up as a true driver of customer satisfaction. If so, I’m certain we can all think of inexpensive ways to improve it. As for the airports, I think it’s too late — one of the reasons that I never check bags.

    Muthu, I’ve heard many versions of the proverb but they all reinforce the science. Old truths tend to stand the test of time.

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