The Scientific Reason Why Your Boss Gives You Busy Work

Office staff with stacks of work to do

Office staff with stacks of work to do | R. Jones/Evening Standard/Getty Images

Being busy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive. But in the modern workplace, it seems that many managers and leaders seem to feel more comfortable fostering that connection — even if it is just an illusion. If you think back to when you were in school, it wasn’t out of the ordinary for teachers to hand out stacks of assignments, for seemingly no other reason than to keep you busy. It was a babysitting tool. And we all worked through it, though it seemed pointless.

It may have seemed like an exercise in futility. And if you’re in a workplace that dolls out pointless task, it likely still does. But there’s actually a reason why some managers like to keep employees running through motions. As researchers are finding out, being busy actually does increase productivity, albeit in a roundabout way.

Social scientists at Columbia University recently published the results of a research project that looked at how busyness and meeting deadlines coalesce into productivity, finding that when people have a lot to do — no matter how trivial the tasks themselves — it increases motivation, and speed at which people work. Published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the study says that the “research tests the hypothesis that being busy increases motivation and reduces the time it takes to complete tasks for which people miss a deadline. This effect occurs because busy people tend to perceive that they are using their time effectively, which mitigates the sense of failure people have when they miss a task deadline.”

In the end, they conclude that “the findings delineate the conditions under which being busy can mitigate the negative effects of missing a deadline and reduce the time it takes to complete tasks.”

The entry is scant on deeper information, but luckily, The British Psychological Society has more details regarding the methods and outcomes. The BPS’ conclusion, after taking it all in? “Busy people are better at bouncing back.”

In other words, when people are busy, they feel more productive. It gives them a sense of momentum and confidence. For that reason, they are building a sort of “inoculation” against missed deadlines. If they do miss a deadline, or fall behind in their work somehow, they’re more likely, and better equipped, to get back on track.

This is the hidden psychological trick in all those menial tasks and stacks of busywork handed out by managers and teachers — they want to keep you going, so that when you do fall behind, your brain is wired to get you back on the rails.

As for the study itself, BPS says the researchers looked at data from 28,000 people using an unnamed productivity tracking app, which accounted for more than 587,000 individual tasks. The tasks included all sorts of things — from career-related work projects, to simply keeping appointments — and the data set spanned more than 500 days. Taking it all into account, researchers looked at how many tasks people were missing (and which were rescheduled), and how long it took them to complete the rescheduled tasks.

They found that busier people — or, those with more tasks on their plates — would bounce back from a missed task and complete it faster than those who were less busy. This is where it was concluded that the busier we are, the more likely we are to remain productive.

In a sense, we’ve discussed this phenomenon before. In creating a sort of never-ending series of “victories,” or completing small tasks, you gain some psychological momentum. You wake up, brush your teeth, make your bed, eat breakfast, and get out the door on time. You’ve already accomplished several things that needed to be done, for example, and have some momentum built up before you even get to work. You’re going to want to extend your streak, so you keep the productivity going.

So, taking this all into account, your boss or teacher may be handing out menial tasks simply to keep your inner productivity tracker engaged. It may seem like a waste of time, but it’s actually keeping you in perpetual motion — which means you’ll remain more engaged, productive, and recover more easily when things do get hairy.

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