We’re not actually that busy, but we’re great at pretending we are

That swamped, or you just stayed up too late watching TV?
That swamped, or you just stayed up too late watching TV?
Image: Reuters/Fatih Saribas
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In an era of limitless technology and information, life can feel at once empowering and overwhelming—especially in jobs where employees feel pressure to be swamped. But just how busy are we, really?

Not as busy as we’d like others to think, according to a new study.

In a survey of 10,000 adults across various generations in 28 countries, global marketing firm Havas Worldwide partnered with market research company Market Probe International to ask people how technology and connectivity have affected their lives. Perhaps the most illuminative finding: People feel compelled to lie about how busy they are.

When the survey asked to what extent respondents agreed with the statement, “I sometimes pretend to be busier than I am,” roughly half of young people (aged 18 to 34) said they overstate their own busyness to others. Older generations were also prone to exaggerating their obligations, though less so. And overall, 57% to 65% of people across multiple generations said they thought other people were pretending to be busier than they actually are.

The report’s authors suggested that our tendency to lie about how busy we are comes from our belief that being busy is equivalent to “leading a life of significance” and not wanting to be “relegated to the sidelines.” This belief, they found, was paramount in countries that applaud hectic lifestyles, such as Germany and the US, whereas countries known to value leisure above work, like Italy and Belgium, are less convinced that keeping busy is a good thing.

Most respondents in the 28 countries fell into a middle “conflicted” category—people who outwardly admired busyness but wanted themselves to slow down. For those people, the conflicting feelings resulted in emotional tension and a desire to exaggerate their personal commitments.

According to the study, only one in five respondents around the world said they genuinely find themselves rushing around a lot. Similarly, a recent survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that most Americans actually work normal hours and get regular sleep, despite their reputation for being overtired and overworked.