The Busy Trap

I am so excited about this article I just read at the New York Times because it captures so beautifully what I was trying to write a while back about busyness. Feeling a bit of déjà vu right about now? Maybe instead of going through all the effort of writing a blog I should just wait for someone at the NYT to write out my thoughts better than I ever could and then report them to you in easily digestible quote format? Hmm, worth considering.

I am honestly tempted just to quote the whole damn thing, but since you’re probably really busy, I’ll just skip right to the points that make me want to hug the author and take him out for a leisurely drink.

It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint…. Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily, classes and activities they’ve “encouraged” their kids to participate in. They’re busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.

I understand this need to feel busy, to stay occupied and be ‘productive’. At the end of each day, I find myself mentally taking account to make sure I can log at least a few things into the ‘being productive’ column, whether or not those things truly needed me that day. In our culture, especially in North America, the concept that hard work is the path to a rewarding life underlies so much of what we do and teach that it’s no wonder so many of us feel this pressure. Meanwhile, relatively little emphasis is placed on the value of simply revelling in the pleasures of life.

Since completing school and settling into my job, I have struggled at times with my new found non-busyness. I know that sounds ridiculous, and that’s because it is slightly ridiculous. I have a full life and yet there it is – this quiet, nagging worry about wasting my precious time, about falling behind.

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day…. I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.

I am learning to give simple pleasures a higher value in my mental ledger where before they didn’t even get recorded. Not (just) because I’m looking for excuses to enjoy my idleness, but because they add value to my life. In the last couple of years I have had some of the best vacations of my life. It started with our honeymoon in Hawaii two years ago where, after the exhaustion of the wedding, I allowed myself the luxury of doing whatever the hell I wanted, whenever the hell I wanted, and discovered how amazing it is to sip wine in the middle of the day and then have a nap. I credited the bliss of that trip to the unique life situation, but then two more trips followed with more of the same. At 28, I finally learned to vacation.

I am slowly learning to bring that joy of idleness to my everyday life and quiet the nagging voice in my head that keeps saying only countable things count.

Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration — it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.


Posted on July 2, 2012, in Life and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. I totally thought of you when I read this article earlier today!

    There is nothing redeeming in being busy by itself. We need purpose.

    We’re totally blog buddies today. I updated as well!

  2. I totally get sucked in to the “busy” trap. I lived that way all the way thorough my junior and senior years of college (class-meetings-class-sports-thesis-homework) and thrived. I was good about calling it quits by about eight or so in the evening so I had time for my friends and some personal reading.

    I still try to stay busy. When I get too into lazing around and doing nothing I get even more lazy. (And unless I’m blogging or researching something internet usage totally falls into this lazy category not “busyness.”) I’m happier and have more energy.

    That being said, however, I don’t do busy like most people do busy. I schedule in workouts and quad rides and hikes with my family. I insist that we clean up the house during the week so the weekends are ours (mini-vacations sort of). We haven’t perfected the lazy vacation…we’re working on lazy days within vacations…but I’m not sure that’s our style. Besides, that mid-day glass of wine tastes damn good when you’re happy-tired and mountain-sore.

    • First – YES to happy-tired and mountain-sore. I realized in Hawaii that my best way to vacation is getting up early, moving all morning to earn a good tiredness, and then vegging out for the afternoon and having a nice early dinner. The BEST.

      I had a similar schedule as you describe through college (minus the sports, let’s be honest) and I both thrived in it and hated it. But I don’t think I called it busy, I just called it my life. I feel like the ‘busyness as a badge of honour’ really is mostly for the fake/voluntarily busy.

  3. So much of what you write and share echoes things I’ve been discovering and mulling over.

    I am gloriously UN-busy right now. Even on my “busy” days, I’ve slept a full 8 hrs., probably worked out, lounged by the pool, had a leisurely dinner, a vegged on the couch for a bit. I feel a little guilty about this state of affairs, a little bit like I’m not living as “real” an adult life as my friends, like I’m getting away with something. I was never not-busy during my years in undergrad and grad school. I wore it like a badge. And maybe it was good for me–for that time. It started to feel like being strangled, suffocated.

    Being constantly productive, in a way that “counts” to the rest of world, seems more virtuous in my mind, but it doesn’t make me FEEL better. I need “the space and quiet that idleness provides.” I feel relaxed and happy when I have time to just be… and if I can find a way to carve that out in my life… maybe I should just celebrate that. I liked this line:

    “The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen” I feel like busyness isn’t often described as a choice, but there are often ways to be less busy, if you’re willing to make sacrifices somewhere else.

    (Only sort of related, but I feel especially guilty when my friends who have children talk about how exhausted they are. Have to keep reminding myself that it’s simply the downside to a choice that has lots of upsides, too–ones I won’t get to experience. So it’s nothing I need to feel bad about. They just made a different choice.)

    • “but there are often ways to be less busy, if you’re willing to make sacrifices somewhere else.”

      Yes, I think this is it exactly.

      I’m also a lot less busy than many of my friends who are closer to the very start of their careers, and sometimes, rather than being thankful that I can take my dog for a nice long walk every day, I worry I’ve done something wrong somewhere along the way to not be busy. That maybe I’m missing something. Which is a screwed up way of thinking but there it is.

  4. I agree 110% with the points made about busyness, but the thing I seem to be getting hung up on is that Krieder doesn’t really address the fact that idleness is a privilege. Many people can’t affordto cut back on their work hours. Believe me, I struggle with work/life balance every single day, and I struggle with trying to overcome my addiction to being productive, but I can’t just simply work less. All that money goes to paying my bills, yo. So part of me was sitting there for the duration of the article, yelling “HOW CAN ANYONE AFFORD TO LIVE IN NYC AND WORK ONLY 4 HOURS A DAY??” As my old friend remarked when I had her read the piece, “That is like Carrie Bradshaw levels of unbelievability there.” And I am jealous, yes I am.

    Anyway. Yes. This has given me a lot to think about. I need to be better about accepting downtime and not feeling guilty about it.

    • Idleness is definitely a privilege and I think you’re right – his description of his day is equivalent to Carrie Bradshaw owning a walk-in closet full of designer shoes in her spacious new york city walkup. But I think he does try to direct the arguments right at the privileged by mentioning that the truly busy tend not to be the ones to boast about it. It’s the privileged especially who somehow feel the need to fill those hours with things and then tell people about how successful they’ve been at filling them – perhaps because of some insecurity about “what they might have to face in its absence.” I know this is true of myself so I’m projecting a little.

      • I really like your point about insecurity surrounding what they might have to face in the absence of busyness. It kind of makes me think of the 1920s, in a way, and about some of the themes addressed in the Great Gatsby. Although that’s more of a thing about people of leisure destroying themselves with excess. Which is what some of us are now doing under the umbrella of “productivity.” Circular!

        I am just struggling with how to stop. I feel like I can’t ever just put work aside without feeling guilty. And a lot of it is actually legitimate stuff I need to work on, like rebuilding a website like I promised someone I’d do, or preparing for my husband’s birthday party, or paying bills/life organization shit. But I think the lesson I took away from this article is that I need to focus on building in downtime. I’ve always approached my life with this idea that I need to work first so I can enjoy my play, yet I the thing about adulthood is that the work never. Fricking. Ends. I don’t want to put guilt-free enjoyment off forever, you know?

  5. I’ve been thinking about this too. Through most of my twenties and into my early thirties I was on a busy-busy schedule, and thrived on it. I think. But it was also exhausting. Since my move to Canada, which was at the same time as my marriage, almost three years ago, my pace of life has become much more leisurely, partly due to not working for a while because of immigration. Anyhow, I have been working for a year now, and still have managed to keep a slower pace. Perhaps it is because I have managed not to take on too many commitments here so far. Plus, my husband is very much enjoys having free time, so I have been learning from him. However, I still find it hard to enjoy fun, unproductive activities without guilt about my long to-do list. I am working on that…

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