Challenging our busyness culture – the value of “idleness”

By Elisabeth Goodman, 13th April 2023

I read Adam Waytz’s article Beware a culture of business1 whilst in London on an inspirational 2-day course on Systemic Coaching and Constellations2.

I love the concept of synchronicity: how things will happen or come to our attention alongside something else. Sure enough, this painting by Blade Glover3 ‘appeared’ on the walls of the October Gallery, where the course was taking place.

Ablade Glover - Red People IV - 2019

It seems a very apt illustration of the busyness in which each of us can be engaged, both at work, and in our everyday lives.

And then, on another wall, not far away, I came across this painting, which I think is by Golnaz Fathii!

And this one seems to depict, for me, the rest and creativity that can arise from so-called ‘idleness’.

“Idleness aversion” is a real thing – but it comes at a cost

Waytz quotes the work of Christopher Hsee4, showing that people will do anything to stop themselves being idle.

It feels like there is a definite culture of busyness in the organisations that I’ve worked in and with, and in western countries in general.

I am frequently greeted with the question: “Are you busy?”, with the automatic assumption that this is a good thing, and to not be so is somehow to be avoided.

Systems and processes at work are often streamlined so that people can squeeze in even more work. I coach people who work in call centres or in other customer facing services where they have to negotiate for anything more than minimum breaks.

According to Waytz:

Research indicates that when organisations overload employees, base their incentives primarily on the amount of time they work, and excessively monitor their activities, productivity and efficiency actually drop

Adam Waytz1, p60

Yet we know that idleness, in the form of rest, mindfulness, meditation is all good for wellbeing.

Waytz argues that it also supports ‘deep work’, and people’s ability to deal with the unexpected.

He says that being over-focused on attention demanding tasks reduces activity in the part of our brain (the “default network”) that “can transcend the here and now”. The result of this is that we have less scope to experience “meaning in life, creative expertise, and even prosocial behaviour.” In other words, having opportunities for our minds to wander enables us to thrive!

So what’s the alternative? Here are a few ideas from the article

Alternatives to the busyness culture

Cautionary note: some of these ideas are somewhat radical and are included here to be thought-provoking, not necessarily to be adopted wholesale. However, the fact that they are included here reflects the reality that some companies have adopted them…

  1. Assess and reward performance based on the quality of the result, rather than volume or speed of work.
  2. Carry out an audit of the type of work done: is it shallow, non-demanding, non-skilful work, or deeper more cognitively demanding work?
  3. Consider eliminating email, meetings, phone calls – or finding ways to minimise how they get in the way of deeper work
  4. Mandate time off, penalise people for doing work during their holidays, combine out-of-office email programmes with deletion of emails sent (notifying the sender accordingly)
  5. Have managers and leaders model the right behaviour such as not checking emails or doing work during holidays, managing their working hours, taking recuperative breaks during the day
  6. Build slack into the organisation through extra human and physical resources and cross-training


What do you recognise from this article in your own mindset and organisation?

What do you think might be worth experimenting with in terms of a different way of thinking or going about things?

Waytz’ conclusion says it all for me:

Research shows that since the 1990s, employees increasingly have been working harder and under tighter deadlines and more stressful conditions as they try to master additional skills to outpace robots…and as digital devices trap them in a 24/7 workplace. This has taken a significant toll on mental and physical health. Businesses and leaders must step up to take a stand against the busyness epidemic so that we can begin to create not only more sustainable organisations but also more sustainable jobs.

Adam Waytz1, p.67


  1. Wyatt, A. (March-April 2023). Beware a culture of busyness. Organisations must top conflating activity with achievement. Harvard Business Review, pp.58-67
  2. Fundamentals Part 1 – Mapping the field. Systemic coaching with constellations.
  3. Ablade Glover – Red People IV – 2019
  4. Hsee, C.K, Yang, A.X. & Wang, L. (2010) Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science 21(7):926-30 Retrieved from:

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