Exploring Busyness: Are You Too Occupied to Notice?
“I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy,” concludes Tim Krieder in a New York Times opinion piece from last summer.
Krieder laments that everyone seems busy–too busy to call or text back, too busy to go watch the football game and eat wings on a Sunday afternoon, too busy to exercise, date, and too busy to carve out unstructured time in any form. I agree with his assertion, but I also recognize that he writes from a position of privilege–after all, he’s managed to make a living as a writer working 4-5 hour days. Unemployment is an issue for millions. Many people would love to be busy, making ends meet. His argument seems largely targeted to career-driven, well-off individuals who don’t strive for the elusive life/work balance.
So why are some people so busy? To what extent have people chosen to be and feel so busy, versus forces seemingly outside of their control? Is it just a false perception?
Clearly, the forces of modernity–namely digital communication–have impacted how busy we are. For instance, at a friend’s bachelor party weekend in New Orleans last year, one of his groomsmen and hedge-fund colleagues had to wake up at 3:00 am on a Friday because some foreign company was releasing their quarterly earnings report. Apparently, he had to react quickly to the news and make a decision to buy or sell. I was dumbfounded. What a shit job, I thought, being tethered to constant communication and time-zones.
I feel fortunate I don’t have to be on call with my iPhone 24-7 for work. As a teacher, there is no communication outside of the school day that is urgent, although I do have to choose to say no and stop working–there’s a constant scroll-like to-do list as an educator. For me, busyness only feels healthy when I scale back the work demands and balance them with other pursuits.
My version of a productive, happily busy weekday? An exciting day in the classroom, engaging with students from roughly 7:40-2:20, perhaps a short meeting or tutoring session after school, a workout, time to browse the internet, cook a meal, hang out with my fiancee, and maybe have another hour of so in there for reading or TV. Like Krieder, this is a privileged position. But I’m also active in saying no to extra job requests, turning off my phone for stretches, and generally deciding that, to me, the good life isn’t taking on as much as I can.
In addition, the American economic system values productivity and growth over all else. When people are on vacation, they still work. When people take lunch breaks, they still check their e-mails and Twitter feeds. Blogger Rachel Ryan, in her response and rebuttal to Krieder, writes, “But, even if some overarching authority mandated that all offices closed at noon for a Spanish-like siesta, people could and would still work. They could go home and work there. They could keep abreast of the news on their phones. They could, oh, I don’t know, read some infuriating article and be compelled to write something on their day off and never really “rest” (which is defined how, exactly?). What conceivable democratic authority has the capacity to institutionalize “relaxation policy?”
As long as the American cultural mindset is to work to consume, then work some more to buy fancier cars and more lavish homes, she’s right: nothing will change. We’re not about to embrace a paradigm shift, but maybe Krieder is right when he states, “But I would suggest that an ideal human life lies somewhere between my own defiant indolence and the rest of the world’s endless frenetic hustle. My role is just to be a bad influence, the kid standing outside the classroom window making faces at you at your desk, urging you to just this once make some excuse and get out of there, come outside and play.”
Lastly, a study reported on in Scientific American provides a wrinkle to this whole notion of the busyness trap. In one experiment, researchers interrupted subjects with tasks ranging from mindless work to writing letters to sick children. In another study, researchers “gave” unstructured time to subjects to do whatever they wanted, while another group had to use the same time to do something for someone else. Those who filled up time in their busy lives with selfless tasks were much more likely to feel empowered and perceived having more time on their hands. Fascinating stuff.
Will I regret it someday if I don’t pick up the pace and write one more blog post a week? Or chair the English Department at school? Or write more e-mails? Or grade more papers? Not a chance.
Where do you stand? Do you feel too busy? Do you have any anecdotal evidence to support the aforementioned study? Does your job or personal habits impose this feeling on you? Would you embrace a more relaxed American economic culture?