At Work & Economics 101

Busyness Doesn’t Make You Important, but Productivity Matters

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The research is in: Americans have more free time than ever before.

According to a study conducted by University of Chicago faculty, Americans work on average eight hours less per week than in the 1960’s. Americans’ time devoted to work has declined while Americans’ leisure time has increased. This is good news.

Having more leisure time is not a sign that we’re growing lazier. It means we’re increasing productivity.

Interestingly, one of the ways we’re increasing productivity is by telecommuting.

A two-year study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom found that employees that worked from home were 13 percent more productive than those who worked in the office. Though there can be challenges to working from home, this example shows that we are constantly looking for ways to do things better and faster and that’s a good thing.

Productivity Is More Than Just Creating More Free Time

Productivity increases and the development of newer, better ways of doing things frees us to do other things God has in store for us.

When you think about opportunity costs, you think about the time, energy, and resources you have to give up to engage in the activity at hand. Increased productivity lessens opportunity costs.

Consider a product as “simple” as milk.

Acquiring milk took considerably more effort in 1900 than it does today.

  • You could only procure your milk from a local source. Your options were limited, and the relative price of milk was higher.
  • Or you milked the cow yourself, but this required owning a cow and cost a lot of time.
  • The first milk tanker truck wouldn’t exist for fourteen more years, and pasteurization was still new. Outbreaks of milk-borne diseases caused typhoid fever, scarlet fever, septic sore throat, and diphtheria. Getting scarlet fever as a result of your daily reliance on milk is very “expensive.”

Modern technology and innovation decrease the problems and opportunity costs related to milk consumption. Today we just go to the grocery store to buy our milk. Pretty low opportunity cost.

As this example illustrates, increased productivity at work results in getting more from each labor hour. We can labor for less hours and yet be increasingly productive.

A Biblical Perspective on Productivity and Busyness

Yet even in 2019 I feel busy. My friends also talk about how busy they are. It doesn’t make sense.

Why are we so busy if we have freed so much of our time?

Several factors are at work here, some good and some bad.

One good factor is that having more free time allows us to busy ourselves with all the work God has called us to, not just our “work” work.

I am not called to only be an economist and a teacher. Being more productive in these areas gives me more time to invest in being a wife and mother. I can teach Sunday school or help in my son’s class.

These are good things. If we are to live our whole lives for Christ, we need to maximize productivity not just in our offices or on the manufacturing floor, but in our homes and churches, too.

Maximizing my productivity with my family looks different than it does in the office. It means spending more quality time with my family, not less. Increasing my productivity at work allows me to do this.

“I Am SO Busy” = “I Am SO Important.” Or Does It?

A negative factor making us too busy for our free time is when we fill our time just to fill it.

My kids don’t need to each be involved in four extracurricular activities. If they were, it would require me to hang a taxi sign on my minivan and forget about eating at the kitchen table. Ever.

Yet this is a choice many parents face. It’s difficult to say ‘no’ to things and let free time be free. But we’re teaching our kids to be busy and stressed out.

Having a block of free time isn’t reason enough to fill it up. What is God asking us to do? Maybe we’ll hear him tell us we need to be still and run around less. Admittedly, this is also difficult.

Another negative factor affecting our free time is that being busy makes us feel important.

“I have SO much to do” translates as “I am needed and important.” We are needed and important, but not because we jam-pack our schedules so full that we can’t breathe.

We’re needed and important because we are precious in God’s sight and handcrafted by him to do important things (whether the world deems them important or not).

Psalm 139:14 says it best:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.

God gave us the job to cultivate his creation. Each second is precious. All of our time must be God-centered and focused on good decision-making. When it is, we can better be who God created us to be and glorify him without all the busyness.

Editor’s note: Read more about how biblical and economic-thinking can help you make better decisions with God-given time and resources in Be Fruitful and Multiply: Why Economics Is Necessary for Making God-Pleasing Decisions.

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