“I’m too busy.”
Do you know how tired I am of iterating that refrain? How I wince at the worn-out words?
It’s been my ball-and-chain, my masochistic modus operandi, for the past twelve years. Yes, I’ve been a slave to responsibility. The calendar is my master. It reminds me to take my vitamins and floss; to get dressed, clean the cat box and water the plants; to see a client, post to Facebook, and go to bed. It even dictates, “Saturday – Free Time: 11:30-3:30.” Worse, that free block inevitably shrinks as extra work spills over from other times in the week when I was too exhausted, too distracted, or too disinterested to complete a “Must Do”; when I defied orders, reshuffled priorities (aren’t they more like suggestions, anyway?), and caught up on Modern Family. I’m surprised I haven’t squeezed in a regular, “Have a good cry, 3:30-5.” Of course, getting a business off the ground is no easy feat, so some allowances need be made when I’m still working through L’s and my Friday Breakfast Night routine. Still, busybodies are boring and I refuse to accept “workaholic” as my permanent middle name.
It’s not only me. All my clients and friends are “completely booked” too. And living in Los Angeles, you factor in drive time with every activity. So half the time, I’m just rushing around in raging traffic. Busy is an Angeleno’s norm, as sure as our Cali-blue sky and insatiable caffeine habit. Some of us cling to the craze with pride; for others, there’s just no way out right now. Many of us haven’t stopped to consider whether there’s an alternative.
I have a love-hate relationship with busyness. On one hand, Mrs. Responsible has done wonders for my reputation. I’m a go-to girl and have gotten more accomplished in my 34 years on Earth than many do in a lifetime. (At what cost, I often wonder.) On the other hand, when fatigue sets in or when I need to think and process, I resent the responsibilities, the emails demanding time-consuming answers. When I’m pressed, I get stressed, tense, and irritable. I’m so filled with Busy that the world may as well disappear. While I’m known as the Energizer Bunny, I relish the idle pace of the snail. Once I unplug from the noise and welcome in the quiet, I can breathe, laugh, loaf, nap, and dream. I can plunge myself into story, like all good writers must. Herein lies the root dilemma. As Tim Kreider, author of the New York Times’ online op-ed piece, “The ‘Busy’ Trap”, explains, “It’s hard to find anything to say about life without immersing yourself in the world, but it’s also just about impossible to figure out what it might be, or how best to say it, without getting the hell out of it again.” I truly believe that idleness is a necessity, not a luxury. It’s the essential ingredient in productivity, happy homes, personal wellbeing, and peace of mind.
So, where does our addiction to responsibility really come from, and how is this affliction truly impacting our lives? Let’s OBSERVE:
I’ve already mentioned our problems in L.A., but the busy syndrome here is on par with other big cities around the states, and a cakewalk in comparison to the frenetic (exhilarating!) pace of New York life. I didn’t feel so busy when I lived in Austin, Texas or San Francisco. And it’s a stark contrast from how I spent my lazy days as an undergrad student in Granada, Spain and as a graduate student in lush Montpelier, Vermont. So what’s the big geographical diff? Do we all just need to move to an artists’ enclave in the south of France to get a life?
Social Expectations Within a Geographical Region?
Maybe our social environment is the driving force behind our lifestyle. Maybe over the centuries we’ve come to collectively impose a certain idyllic way of life on one another, as natural to the DNA of a place as its people’s heritage. So in cities like L.A. and NYC, busy is an ideal to strive toward. Busy = Popular + Successful. It’s a frame of mind inherently understood and encouraged by all who live, or who choose to relocate, to such epicenters of action. Just part of our surrounding air pressure. Kreider, who lives in New York City, writes this about busyness: “I could see why people enjoy this complaint; it makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon. A boast disguised as a complaint. And the stock response is a kind of congratulation: ‘That’s a good problem to have,’ or ‘Better than the opposite.’” As though one’s meaning in their big city life must be measured by how in demand they are, where vacations are about finally catching up on emails, forget the family functions.
I work, cook, clean, do laundry, run errands, grow a garden, volunteer, write, teach, blog. There’s always something vying for my time. But while my life may be hectic, I’m not a single mom on food stamps with three minimum wage part-time jobs, just trying to put a meal on the table. That’s “crazy busy” on a survival level, not a voluntary one. When freelancers grumble that their line of work is “feast or famine,” perhaps we ought to watch our hyperboles and gain some gratitude for the position of freedom we’ve already achieved.
Some people just enjoy being busy. Active = Sense of Purpose. Time = Money.
Others revel in tranquility. Idle = Sense of Purpose. Time = Abundance.
And then there are blends; those (like me) who don’t particularly enjoy being busy, but end up strategizing every second of the day to accommodate our need to be thorough and our penchant for mulling over details. (I believe people affectionately refer to us as perfectionists.)
Clearly we are not all hard-wired the same way, so we shouldn’t expect everyone to fall in line behind us. As one reader posted to Kreider’s article, “We learned the world is not flat and now we need to accept that neither are people.”
Perception of Reality?
Along personality lines our perceptions of reality shift, and so do our choices and priorities.
To the idle person, a day in a daisy field is more productive and fulfilling than one in the cubicle. In other words, busy bodies are addicted to the inconsequential, while the greatest in life is out there, waiting to be experienced!
A busy person wouldn’t spare a minute listening to such philosophical rants. They’d feel anxious about not furthering themselves or their goals in some capacity each day, and probably even feel sorry for the laggers who hadn’t gotten on the bandwagon sooner.
One reader wisely suggested that we stop using the word, ‘busy’ altogether. “Instead, say what you are actually doing–name it. This breaks down ‘busy’ and, if you’re hiding behind it, exposes you (mostly to yourself).”
That’s an exercise I’m game to try.
Where We’re “At” in Life?
Maybe Busy is just a phase and not an inescapable condition of human existence. Maybe we grow out of it; move from ‘more is more’ to ‘less is more,’ loosening the reins as we realize with experience that the world will not collapse if we are not there to hold it up.
A third reader of Tim Kreider’s op-ed article told of a time when her young daughter came up to her, “with an un-urgent demand for attention.” When the reader told her daughter that she was “in the middle of my ‘nothing-time,’” and would handle her request afterward, her daughter disappeared into the house, “and then reappeared a few minutes later with a mug in her hands—to join me in doing nothing. Success.”
Which brings us directly to…
What Are We Teaching Our Kids?
No matter which way you slice it, we are a product of our upbringing, whether we emulate or categorically reject this experience. Parents (and teachers) are children’s role models.
If we are addicted to responsibility, we should expect to see some semblance of similarity in our children’s behavior. When our kids focus on the end result (GPAs, SATs, college apps) without regard for pure enjoyment and the learning process (ah, the lost arts of reading, writing, teamwork, service, and play), they are perpetuating an addiction to busyness through blind ambition that could easily result in burnout and disenchantment.
Changing Our Own Narrative
- What is my happiness worth?
- How much of my happiness depends on my freedom of choice?
- How do I live today to create the tomorrow I’ve committed to? (What boundaries must I set & what am I willing to sacrifice to achieve my vision of happiness and freedom?)
As I finish this post up, I’m on a family trip in Cambria. It was a struggle for all of us to converge and dodge the curve balls along the way. My mother wondered at first whether getting out of town was even worth the hassle. But life’s a journey, right? It’s a whole experience, not a formula with a set of directions. So here we are, tucked in by the seaside, on to the fun stuff! Taking walks, riding bikes, eating, making, talking, playing, sightseeing, laughing, being together and present. (And, yes, even taking time out to finish this post.) There’s so much more I could have said (heck, I could have broken this post up into a 10-part series!), but at some point we put the work down, knowing it’s the best we can do at the time (or at least before the olallieberry pie is set on the table), and we send it out into the world, in hopes that our truth will spark a flame inside others.
Bottom Line: let’s be kind to ourselves; let’s love and honor personal needs.
Unstructured downtime is essential to our joy and creative souls. Freedom may be a daunting prospect for those of us who are tied to a screen or who must have a plan, but we humans are paradoxical by nature and built for adaptability. What freedom to have your eyes open and looking out onto the world! To remember what opportunities for fulfillment await at catching a sunset or dancing like a fool with your friends. In those moments, your life skills get realigned, and you remember that even when you’re doing nothing, that is doing something.
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