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?