Why Busywork Makes You Happy

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.

Last week I made a plea for the less is more approach to working smart: maintaining quiet, focused time for yourself. I’ve warned about the downside staying busy for busy’s sake, of  losing connection to your mission and feeling overwhelmed over “stuff” that doesn’t deserve it.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and a place for culling an inbox, organizing files, or surfing the web. New research led by Gloria Mark at University of California at Irvine, along with some folks at Microsoft Research, have determined that there’s an upside to busy work.

In the study (“Bored Mondays and Focused Afternoons: The Rhythm of Attention and Online Activity in the Workplace”), Mark and her team took a good look at how people’s focus and mood changed throughout the day and the week. And it turns out the seemingly dull tasks of culling your inbox, surfing the web, etc., at the right times, may actually lift your mood and make you feel accomplished.

Mark and her team found that:

  • Overall, there’s more focused attention than boredom in the workplace;
  • Focus peaks mid-afternoon while boredom peaks in early afternoon;
  • People are the most bored on Mondays, but also the most focused;
  • People are happiest doing rote work and most stressed doing focused work.

That’s right. While you know it feels terrific to cross off a whopper of a job on your to-do list, it’s not always the heavy lifting that makes you the most “happy.” Not all the time, anyway. And probably not at 3:00 p.m. on a Monday.

In the Wall Street Journal’s report on the study (“The Hidden Pleasures of Busywork”), Dr. Mark explains why: “Focus involves a kind of stress and people aren’t generally happy when they are stressed,” says Dr. Mark. By contrast, “rote work is effortless, so you can get gratification for getting things done.”

What This Means for You

While the ability to focus and create and be truly productive is indispensable, it’s not like you can or should run that way all day long. You might think that in an ideal world you’d work uninterrupted and unimpeded for hours at a stretch. But the truth is that into every life a little busywork must flow. We all have inboxes that need clearing, documents that need filing, and plenty of other littler tasks that may not make it onto your resume, but are worth getting done—and which may actually cheer you up as you’re doing them. We often schedule things that we don’t want to do, but try also scheduling in some time for some rote work.  It will make you feel happier and more accomplished.

We have natural rhythms, waxing and waning attentions, and a finite amount of energy and hours in any given day. What this research drives home for me is that that’s what makes the focused, heavy-lifting time that much more precious—because it’s rare. A little busywork, especially during a low energy point in your day, may very well contribute to a sense of accomplishment you need to feel—because that’s what will, in turn, fuel you on the days when the lifting is heavy, and the victories are harder won.