If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: “Busy!” “So busy.” “Crazy busy.” It is, pretty obviously, 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.”
So begins an article called “The Busy Trap” by Tim Kreider in the New York Times.
Isn’t it true? It seems that every one of our conversations begins with some variation of that exchange. Everything we do in our personal and professional lives has the oppressive specter of immediacy and urgency – as if we have to get things done right away lest we somehow fall behind in an imaginary race to a destination that we ultimately never reach.
I don’t know about you, but I sense that we’re all reaching a tipping point. There is no way that you and I can continue this blistering pace indefinitely — and we all want to know where we’re going.
What’s the point of this frenzy? Why are we working so hard and sacrificing time with people or putting pursuits on hold that are likely far more important to us?
The sad part: we’re choosing it. As Krieder puts it:
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…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.
The good news is that we also have the capacity to alter our present course. On my best days, I am able to do one or all of these things:
1) Find your mind. I know the term “mindfulness” seems to be the domain of pop psychology or self-help gurus, but I know of no other way to get calm in the calamity that surrounds us. It’s critically important to listen to yourself — that banter in your brain bouncing around like a crazy ball — and stop it. Capture those thoughts and conquer the part of you that chases after the mental pop-ups that leave you feeling scattered and unproductive.
2) Take a break. You and I can’t work 8-10 hours straight, at least not effectively. In fact, it will damage our health. Resist the urge to keep on plowing through the tasks of the day one after another. Set an alarm and get up from your desk. Take a walk or just stretch. Five minutes is even better than nothing. You can return to work and you’ll likely get more done because you took the time to hit the refresh. I’ve been trying to make a habit of taking a walk during phone calls where I don’t need a screen. When the call is over, I put the phone in my pocket and try (desperately) not to look at it until I get back to my desk.
3) Use your muse. For me, music is where I turn when I feel the encroaching stress or strain of busyness. For others, it might be heading over to Flickr to discover something beautiful or brilliant. Perhaps it’s just calling a friend or chatting with a colleague (in-person or virtual). Whatever it is for you that is not doing something “productive,” do that instead. I’m not advocating, of course, for frittering away 20 minutes…again, just 5 minutes of experiencing something you enjoy can clear your mind and restore equilibrium.
Of course, I am writing this message on my last day in the office before a week-long vacation.
I hope I’ll be able to totally unplug and relax, not using my time off as one more way to run from activity to activity. That seems to be getting harder and harder to do these days.
Are you tired of being busy?
How do you beat back busyness?