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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.



The one week countdown is on. In exactly 7 days, I will be stepping onto a plane heading towards Finland and my mom, but before that happens, I have to finish two projects at work, tie up a whole lot of loose ends at home, say bye to my little puppy for 19 whole days,* oh and learn Finnish again.

My stomach is starting to get all knotted up on me. This is how my nervousness makes itself known – has since I was little. I remember asking my mom before a trip why my stomach hurt. She knew why – she probably gets the same thing. Really proved to be a giant inconvenience during the wedding madness, when I couldn’t even force down wine to soothe my nerves. Totally unfair. (Apparently nervousness also makes my sentences get shorter. Fun.)

I wish I had more time to write. Compared to my usual life of relaxed, uneventful monotony, I am in a whirlwind right now and actually might have interesting things to say but no time to say them. Things about growing up, friendships, marriage, family, obligations, and even babies. The babies-are-scary discussion started by Liz and continued over at APW is generating strange new paths of thought in my brain, where before existed only one giant sign reading “Babies → End of Your Life.” As usual, I’m grateful to the blogging world for making me think when I don’t have the energy for thoughtfulness.

It’s slowly dawning on me that this pattern of a slooooooow life peppered a couple of times a year with periods of extreme activity is probably going to be my normal for the foreseeable future. For a while I kept believing each flurry was a one-off, a random set of circumstances that piled up, but after a few years I’m finally beginning to catch on; this is just how it works when your closest family and friends live far, far away. And as the number of obligations grows for all of us, the number of days we actually have together keeps getting smaller and more packed with activities and expectations.

For the most part, it is fun. Visits are something to look forward to and plan for in those quiet months. I love having something to wait for. But I’m also an introvert through and through, and the non-stop socializing that results – even with my closest friends and family – leaves me completely overwhelmed. I am fine for a few days, but more than that will reliably start to crack me emotionally. When yet another social event piles on, I force myself to have a good time, but when I get home I have a price to pay for that mental workout. I get easily frustrated and find it hard to relax. I lose my temper more easily, though I also burst out laughing more easily. I am simply wound up and it never ends well. These whirlwinds always leave me longing for the quiet again.

At least I have this to look forward to:

I think I can be quiet here.

*Leaving Cassie behind is stressing me out. We are leaving her with John’s parents – who are lovely dog people – but are used to my sister-in-law’s dog who is a seven year old black lab and has spent his entire life off-leash. John’s dad basically doesn’t believe in leashes. Luckily we have a couple of things making this not quite so bad: 1. They live in a quiet neighbourhood with a giant backyard. It is not fenced, though it does have a hedge. 2. Although Cassie is on leash whenever we walk her, she does spend at least half an hour a day off-leash in the dog park by our house and is pretty reliable with recall and doesn’t wander off. I also worry a bit about her restless teeth – she still likes to chew random things and their house isn’t exactly puppy-proof. So in summary, I will likely spend the entire time she is out of my care worrying about her and John will spend the entire time saying “she’s fine.” Which I’m sure she will be. Pretty sure anyway.

Owning my quiet life

So now that I’ve spent two weeks complaining about being busy, there are a couple of things I should tell you: one, it bugs me when people complain about being busy, and two, I’m a total hypocrite.

Ok, I’m not totally unreasonable. I appreciate that people do legitimately get busy, which is why there are no hard and fast rules to this – it’s like the Russian roulette of pet peeves. How fun!

The root of my annoyance is that it seems like busy-ness has become a badge of honour to be earned rather than a true requirement of life for a lot of people.

I claimed to be busy last week but my idea of busy is not most people’s idea of busy. I still had time to go for a good walk with the dog, make dinner, and then vegetate on the couch for an hour before sleeping for seven or eight hours. But because I didn’t get my usual amount of time dedicated to relaxing – whether it be writing, reading or watching The  Bachelor – I felt busy and unrested.

I am one of the lucky bastards with a job that fits into 40-odd hours a week and no other real responsibilities to speak of. By all accounts people in my position should have plenty of time – an entire 70+ hours a week that are not taken up by sleep or work – so why does it appear that so many are running around like headless chickens?

Are they truly extracting more delicious juice out of life? Am I just a pathetic waste of twenty-something* energy and skin because I want to live a calm and quiet life?

I like excitement to come in small bursts because I need a lot of processing time and so consciously make room for this. I need to wind down from my day by basically just lying there consuming oxygen for significant portions of time while the gears in my head slow down. When life conspires to disturb this fine balance, I’m bothered and quickly make efforts to restore it.

This is not for everyone obviously. What bothers me is when people maintain their lives in a constantly busy state and then complain about it. Obviously there are many circumstances where busy-ness cannot be helped even if you’d like to – like while in school or when you have small children etc. etc. Go ahead and bitch – I’ll bring the drinks. But I think for a lot of people the busy-ness is a choice. If you thrive on being a social butterfly while working several jobs and volunteering that is fantastic – so own it! Admit that you are choosing to be busy. If you don’t, then stop and prioritize. At some point you just have to own up to your choices and live the life you want to live.

I feel like ‘I’m so busy’ has become a part of our modern day arsenal just as much as the Blackberry. You can pull it out as a shortcut for all kinds of things or just to make yourself feel important. We strive for it, because the cultural narrative tells us everyone else is already there and you’ll be irrelevant if you’re not.

I’ll admit that sometimes I feel like I’m doing something wrong by not staying busy (and yeah, this is probably the real root cause of being bugged by people who are). I’m still learning to be ok with my pace of life. My life might be quiet but it still feels pretty full.

*I’ve got seven and a half months of being twenty-something, I’m milking it while I can.

P.S. Kerry recently wrote a beautiful post on living a small life that says it all. If you haven’t already, you should go read it.