The Economic Functions of Busyness: From Convenience to Debt

I’m not a very busy person. I don’t mean that as a weird flex. Nor do I say it as a way to eschew the elevated status of Very Busy Person. There simply aren’t a lot of varying demands on my time. There is plenty that I want to do—books I want to read, ideas I want to pursue, pieces I want to write, etc.—but those things are largely self-imposed.

It wasn’t always this way. I was a Very Busy Person for many years.

As my own busyness started to ease, first on account of the pandemic and then as a function of depression, I started to notice my consumption habits shift. As a Very Busy Person, I spent a great deal of money on clothes, travel, eating out, massage therapy, etc. But as a not-so-busy person, I wasn’t nearly as compelled to spend money. I was more satisfied with buying a nice thing here or there and using it constantly.

There were things from the Before Times I thought I couldn’t give up that simply didn’t matter anymore.

Make no mistake: I didn’t plan on this. It wasn’t part of some greater experiment in minimalism or mindfulness. I made this discovery in the midst of dark and aimless times.

Of course, I wanted to know Why. Why was Tara the Very Busy Person likely to spend money with abandon while Tara the Not-So-Busy Person wasn’t?

Busyness serves an economic function.

Busyness is a feature, not a bug, of our economic system. And while it became de rigueur around 2014-15 to declare that we aren’t as busy as we think we are, busyness as a feeling is fact—no matter the dubious data that claim what we feel isn’t real.

Busyness creates fairly predictable psychological outcomes: stress, anxiety, difficulty prioritizing, short-term focus, impulsivity, etc. In each of those psychological states, we’re more likely to spend money either to ease the discomfort or because our critical thinking is disabled. Marketers use these psychological states to their advantage all the time. In fact, when I searched for the connection between urgency and consumption, instead of research, I got article after article about how to use urgency to drive conversions.

But it’s not just marketing. It’s also product and category development, as well as profit gains through consumer debt.

Busyness serves at least four distinct economic functions.

1. Busyness drives the innovation of convenience.

Busyness is why services like DoorDash, Instacart, Blue Apron, and StitchFix exist. The busier we are, the more likely we will buy the value proposition of grocery delivery or meal kit offers. The more likely we are to pay extra for prepared food at the supermarket or order the afternoon pick-me-up latte in our Starbucks apps.

Any product that’s designed to save us time, make things more convenient, or increase our productivity is going to be a product that has a real shot at making it big.

2. Busyness expands the market for therapeutic products and services.

Meditation apps, yoga streaming services, massage therapy franchises, online therapy… they’re all an effort to bring the elite’s coping mechanisms to a broader market. Of course, busyness also contributes to the bottom lines of in-person yoga studies and high-end spas, too.

Today, every Very Busy Person knows they should treat themselves to some indulgent self-care. Every Very Busy Person knows that therapy can help them get ahead at work and then ease the stress they feel as a result of getting ahead.

3. Busyness generates wealth via interest from consumer debt.

Very Busy People can easily rationalize the necessity of indulging in convenience or therapeutic products and services (I speak from experience here). And viewing these purchases as necessities means that it’s fairly easy to rationalize putting them on a credit card and promising to pay it off after the next paycheck or closed deal.

Consumer debt produces interest for lenders—who generate wealth via financial capital rather than wage labor or value production.

4. Busyness disables civic engagement.

This is a political consequence of busyness but also an economic one. The busier we are, the less likely we are to participate in our communities. We’re less likely to spend time organizing or advocating for change. We’re less likely to pay attention to who’s doing what in government or local leadership.

And that means that the people with power will likely stay in power, regardless of their effectiveness. It also means that people who can afford to buy influence will have the greatest say in our communities.

There are many reasons we become busy.

Many of those reasons are structural and out of our control. But the reasons we stay busy? Well, we can be complicit in those.

The more we spend on convenience, the more indulgence becomes a necessity, the more debt we take on, the more we’re likely to take on work and responsibilities that make us even busier. Busyness is self-perpetuating—which is another way of saying that busyness supports the growth-at-all-costs imperative of capitalism.

My goal is not to shame or belittle anyone for the money they spend on convenience or self-care, nor is it to cast dispersions on anyone in debt or disengaged from their communities.

My hope is that in describing this process, we can all be more aware of the part busyness plays in our lives and make choices with intention as we’re able to.


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By Tara McMullin

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Nov 14, 2022

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