Did you know that being busy is making you stupid? Yes, that’s right! It’s reducing your IQ by about 14 points. By most common classifications of IQ, 14 points are sufficient to upgrade someone from “average” to “superior” intelligence; or, downgrade someone from “average” to “borderline deficient” intelligence.
Now, I realize that if you, like me, have been brought up to attach your sense of identity, meaning and security in life to a busy job, in a culture that conflates productivity with long hours, it’s going to take more than the above statement to convince you. So, I bring brainy reinforcement.
Meet psychologist Eldar Shafir from Princeton and economist Sendhil Mullainathan from Harvard. These two gentlemen study people for a living. Mostly, people who lack money. They may be sugarcane farmers in India, or ill-paid office managers in Cleveland, Ohio, who live from pay cheque to pay cheque. The researchers found that,
Scarcity takes up most of our “mental bandwidth” and comes at the expense of smart decisions, wellbeing, good health and even intelligence.
In other words, if you’re forced to constantly worry about making ends meet, there’s little room and energy left for you to actually make them meet. The fact that poverty creates a mindset that perpetuates more poverty is quickly evident in developing countries. It is often the poor who neglect to vaccinate their children, sanitize their water, clean their hands, weed their crops, take their medication or eat well. Our initiatives to aid the poor often fail because the poor themselves fail to help themselves.
Mullainathan and Shafir found that these character shortcomings are a consequence of poverty, and not just a cause of it. “Less is more,” applies to scarcity too: The less we have of something, the more it means to us, and the more we worry about it. The relentless struggle to make ends meet is like a wild bushfire; all-consuming, destructive and disconcerting. Questions like “What will I feed my children this week?” and “How do I pay the bills?” are bound to keep our focus etched on what we’re lacking. This thing then, whatever it is that we are not getting enough of — money, food or water becomes an “elephant in the room”.
“And that’s why,” I hear you say, “I work so hard! So that I don’t have to find myself with the elephant in the room.” Living a good life, conventional wisdom tells us after all, depends to a great extent on how hard we work. It either depends on how hard the family we were born into worked, on how many degrees we choose to follow, on how early we rise, or how little sleep we can get by with.
But, the problem with scarcity is, that it doesn’t discriminate its victims. People with scarcity of time, are in many ways as “poor” as those with scarcity of money.
Being busy is to time, what being poor is to money.
The poor are preoccupied with which financial reserves to draw from, while the busy are forced to worry about which energy reserves to source their strength from. The poor are scraping by, while the busy are spread too thin. Scarcity, whether of time, sleep or money makes us as nimble and as effective as a deer caught in headlights. No time? Down you go into the “average” IQ cluster!
But there’s good news too — this decline in IQ is only valid as long as scarcity remains an issue. Mullainathan and Shafir’s research showed that when the concerns about poverty were elevated, the IQ rose again.
Reducing cyclical poverty has always been top of mind for both governments, and economists and scientists alike. The “silver bullet” may still need to be found, but most of the world is searching for it.
When it comes to scarcity of time, however, the urgency escapes us. Surely, social scientists and employers now and then come up with incentives that aim to manage our time. The latest weapon we’ve been armed with in our battle with overexertion is the “17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work” rule. But how many of you reading this, have heard of the 17-minute break rule, or are actually implementing it?
The downside of all these great, well-intended incentives, is that they don’t manage the other end of the overexertion lever – aka the amount of workload. Our productivity per person has grown by about 97 percent a year since the 1960s, but our working hours haven’t budged. We’re working longer hours if anything. For many, working overtime isn’t an occasional effort, but rather an accepted and regular aspect of working life.
For the most part, when it comes to overexertion, the notion that it is something people have to overcome on their own still predominates. What if we can’t? What if the busy aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the awareness, all the information is like carrying water to sea?