Money

Leaning in, burning out and the humblebrag

June 27, 2014 at 2:17 PM ET

Image: Yvette M.
M. Spencer Green / AP
Our technology lets us multitask to the extreme, and we often want to let others know how productive we're being. But we're overloading ourselves and risking burnout, experts say.

Being overscheduled, overtired and generally overwhelmed has become something of an upper-middle-class badge of honor.

Critics argue that "having it all" has become synonymous with spreading ourselves too thin.

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“The nature of bubbles is that some asset is absurdly overvalued …. The asset we’re overvaluing now is the notion of doing it all, having it all, achieving it all,” author and speaker Greg McKeown wrote on a Harvard Business Review blog.

McKeown’s post joins a growing body of opinion pieces urging people — primarily women — mired in obligations and commitments to work, family, professional networks and volunteerism to "lean out" — in contrast to the titular advice of Sheryl Sandberg's movement to encourage female leadership — and add free time back into our lives.

“Time scarcity is a huge happiness killer,” said Rajagopal Raghunathan, a professor of marketing at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

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So why do it? Why overload ourselves and then telegraph the inevitable burnout?

For one thing, we’re evolutionarily wired to seek out activity, according to University of Chicago professor of behavioral science and marketing Christopher Hsee. In a research paper about "the need for justifiable busyness," Hsee observed that people have to be motivated to be busy, but almost any excuse will fit the bill. "People dread idleness, and their professed reasons for activity may be mere justifications for keeping busy,” he wrote.

McKeown blamed "smart phones, social media, and extreme consumerism." He wrote, "We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we 'should' be doing."

People tend to over-commit because we make the flawed assumption that our plethora of mobile devices and other high-tech tools will make us much more efficient than they actually do, Raghunathan said. “We overestimate the extent to which they’re going to give us free time.”

Seth Spain, an assistant professor of organizational behavior and leadership at Binghamton University, said when we log onto social media and see the most exciting parts of our friends' lives, we measure ourselves against that and feel compelled to compete. “If we have some sort of an unrealistic expectation of what success is, [we’re] going to strive for a lot more than is probably reasonable,” he said.

"We are more aware than at any time in history of what everyone else is doing and, therefore, what we 'should' be doing."

Cue the humblebrag. "I think it’s a signal to other people that ‘I’ve arrived and I have so many things going on,'” Raghunathan said.

"All of us realize it’s not in good taste to brag about how successful you are," he said. "Instead, you give them this proxy signal for being successful [that] allows us to act modest."

Spain pointed out that low-income Americans suffer from time poverty as well, often to a greater extent than their wealthier counterparts, but it doesn't become a status symbol.

"When you’re competing for more basic resources, it’s sort of antithetical to making not sleeping enough or how hard you’re working into a virtue," Spain said.

While more affluent Americans deliberately pursue this busyness, it doesn’t deliver the fulfillment we pursue because the more we have, the more we want. “Across the board, our answer to the problem of more is always more,” McKeown wrote.

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