Are We Busy For All the Wrong Reasons?

Most of us wear way too many hats and have lives too busy for introspection. Photo courtesy of livinggreenmag.com.

The most emailed article from Sunday’s New York Times is one by writer Tim Kreider, who extols the benefits of being less busy. The article claims that for most people, busyness is more pointless than purposeful; something we do because we are afraid our lives will be meaningless if we don’t fill every second.

“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,” Kreider writes.

This article was timely because I just got back from vacation, which always clears the debris from my head and makes me ponder just what distractions are worth putting back in.

Kreider points out that most people keep their lives so tightly scheduled that it leaves little room for idleness and spontaneity, which feed the soul, recharge the mind and make one far more productive. He mentions a friend who left New York to live a bucolic life in the south of France and over time became a nicer, more relaxed and creative person.

The article, and the comments that follow, really struck a chord. Kreider cheerfully admits to being a bit of a slacker, working just four or five hours a day. “And if you call me up and ask whether I won’t maybe blow off work and check out the new American Wing at the Met or ogle girls in Central Park or just drink chilled pink minty cocktails all day long, I will say, what time?” he adds.

A few commenters chided Kreider for taking on a topic that is really a problem only for well-to-do people who can afford to slack off (although he does acknowledge that many people have no choice but to work very hard to make ends meet.) One commenter even called the article “tragically elitist” and accused Kreider of being upper middle class or writing his essay from a family-owned vacation spot. But many more agreed that a slower, more lumbering pace is better for them, even if it means fewer creature comforts.

So why do so many people who can afford to be less busy keep up their frenetic overscheduled lives? One friend of mine recently confessed that he had to keep checking his work emails over his entire vacation. He said that people who don’t respond to his company’s group emails – even while on vacation — are talked-about and marginalized as lightweights. Another friend spends several hours a day touching base with her staff even when she is “on vacation.” She is keeping her eye on the ball: retiring early within the next five to 10 years. Even one unplugged week leaves her too far behind.

Some might say that extreme busyness is the price we need to pay for the right to be non-busy some time “in the future.” The bait shack owner in Fiji, the ski instructor in Telluride, the organic arugula grower in Nantucket, the hippie-ish adjunct professor of cultural studies…how many of them were once over-scheduled bond managers or 80-hour-per-week mid-level executives somewhere? But others might say that life is too short and we may be dead before the payoff comes; that it’s best to work in some downtime now.

What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “Are We Busy For All the Wrong Reasons?

  1. This posting (and Times article) really struck a chord with me. I’m on vacation this week, trying to reboot my cranky self back to the person I used to be before 10-hour workdays became the norm. For the past few days, I’ve enjoyed so many of the little things I never seem to have time for — like lingering with the newspaper, taking a morning walk, downloading music on iTunes I’ve always loved but never owned… I find I long for the quiet pleasures of a simpler life!

    But I agree with Tim Kreider that having time to let your mind wander can spawn the most creative ideas. I often spend countless hours at work agonizing over a problem only to find inspiration in the most unlikely places (usually the shower). As happy as I am to come up with a fix, I regret that I let work intrude that far into my personal time.

  2. It was a very good article and obviously many people took the time to read and share it. Thanks for writing about it, as well!

  3. The formerly blurred line between work and life is now completely vanished. I’ve succumbed to the mid-level management curse of getting caught up in the machine. With a global team selling different products to different parts of the value chain in different parts of the world, there is always something burning, always something that needs my attention, always some extra push that must be made somewhere.

    I’ve thrown myself under the bus of ego and ambition with the promise to myself that someday that ocean view (or at least close enough to hear it) home is the prize that awaits. A few weeks ago I was driving my 13 year old to school and telling him of another trip to Asia I was about to take. For the past few months I’ve made this trip every two weeks or so and it got old fast for all of us. As we talked about it and why I travel so much, this poignant, intelligent and clear-thinking son of mine said “Mom, do you really need this job? I mean, how much do we really need?”.

    Like a bucket of ice water to the face, a sharp reminder that just because we can, doesn’t mean we should. We are at the beach this week and as I carefully choose the interstitials to check e-mail, my saving grace is the fleeting thought of never going back…after all, how much do we really need?

  4. A minor character in Catch-22, Dunbar, cultivated the practice of boredom.
    I’m not sure I’m ready for spontaneity, but I’ll accept idleness, especially with a single-malt scotch (winter) or margarita (summer).

  5. I guess everyone has to decide how busy to be, and what feels right to them at that particular point in their lives. I have noticed, though, that almost every person I approach with an idea that would require even minimal time says the same thing: “I have too much on my plate.” I don’t know where this universal excuse came from, but it’s disheartening. I’m determined to be less busy and more available for spontaneity. Thank you for this reminder, Catherine.

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