Tim Kreider’s (2012) recent article in The New York Times’s Opinionator section entitled “The Busy Trap” really struck a chord with me. Not so much because I am juggling a lot of different projects at the moment, but rather because I heard the voices of so many people with whom I come into contact these days.
I have come to truly despise the excuse “I’m too busy.”
As an existentialist, I do not want to label or generalize, but the imperfect human part of me cheered when I saw someone writing about this collective issue. Kreider started his piece by explaining how “Busy” or “I’m busy” has become the default response to questions such as “How are you?” And he said this response is usually met with approval, as though the alternative—not being busy—is too unthinkable for words.
What is particularly interesting about Kreider’s piece is that he distinguishes between the people who are working multiple shifts or engaged in heavy physical labor from those making the claim for busy-ness. The former, he said, usually will respond to the “How are you?” question with a physical manifestation—e.g., “I’m tired.” He said those who make the claim to busy-ness are usually bogged down with self-imposed commitments—extra projects, classes, volunteer projects, and the like.
“The present hysteria is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it,” Kreider said, further distinguishing this busy-ness from those who toil with multiple shifts or heavy labor.
And it is a choice that many busy parents impose upon their children, Kreider said, with the eventual result being lots to talk about and celebrate for those college applications.
But what happened to lazy summer afternoons in the park just enjoying the sunshine? Or spending a day in bed with a great book that one is only reading for pleasure? Must these times be relegated to “vacations,” which are often scheduled just as tightly as non-vacation time, only in a different, possibly more exotic locale.
Fourteen years ago, I gave myself a real vacation for my birthday—a week alone in Cancun during the offseason. No one was around so it was just me and my book and the beach and the sunshine—with occasional side trips to the hotel’s massage therapist. On only one day did I go sightseeing. The whole vacation was designed to be rest—being rather than doing. Of course, this was fourteen years ago—I have not taken myself on such restful, blissful trips since. Although at least I have this one, which may be more than many busy people often have.
If one is constantly doing and not being, that person is probably living in the future—and the outcome—more than living in the present and in the process. Kreider suggests that this kind of living is insulation against existential angst: “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.”
This also begs the question “Who are busy people afraid of judging their lives ‘silly or trivial or meaningless’ if they dare to stop moving?” I know I have long ago let go of worrying about how other people view my life—I know they are not living my life so there is no way they can possibly know what I do or how I really am. But in this world of Facebook and Twitter, one needs to have something he or she can constantly twitter about. Who wants to read tweets that say “Read a book for four hours” and then another that said “Pondered the universe from my living room window for the last three hours?” Certainly not one’s 500-plus followers who are craving action as though everyone’s life was a movie with constant drama.
For myself, I wno longer need the drama I may have needed in my teens and 20s, and maybe even in my 30s. And if I thought to actually send out a tweet to my under 500 followers, I would have no problem tweeting about doing nothing, although I am not sure why people would want to know that.
Unless we need more models of being rather than doing behavior.
If it became trendier to not be so busy—if we did not reward the busy with praise or admiration for their busy-ness—perhaps it would become less popular. This is not to say I am encouraging laziness or lack of productivity. Just because one is busy does not immediately imply productivity. In fact, it is often the opposite, because if one finishes a project, he or she might be less busy. And then would have to contend with—dare I say it?—free time. Oh no! Not that!
One of my favorite quotes, slightly paraphrased here, comes out an old self-help book: “Try not to brag about how stressed [busy] you are—it’s hard to give up something we are good at” (James, 1988).
So the next time you are about to tell me that you are simply too busy, I beg you to pause for a moment and just be.
James, J. (1988). Women and the blues. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.
Kreider, T. (2012, June 30). The busy trap. The New York Times [online edition]. Retrieved at https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/the-busy-trap/.
— Sarah Kass