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.