“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance.”
Frantic, frenetic, on the go, on the phone, getting takeout, going to be late, sorry can’t make it, too much to do. Where does the time go?
Sound familiar? Despite a global decline in working hours, people feel as harried as ever. An especially common complaint among the white collar working class, the anxious sense of being under a time crunch might actually reflect a state of mind even more than a state of scheduling.
Being busy makes us feel important and desired. Like living, breathing graphs out of Econ 101, when our time is made a limited resource, we feel in-demand and valuable. For the most part, we try to forget that we ourselves have orchestrated this artificial scarcity.
“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance,” writes Tim Kreider for the New York Times, “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.”
But of course it can. Dashing from meeting to meeting doesn’t guarantee that what you’re doing matters; surely the executives who spearheaded the Microsoft Zune had packed schedules, too.
In fact, many argue that the constant flutter of activity just enables us to avoid asking whether we are living the lives we want. Omar Safi, a writer for On Being, asks in his column, “How exactly are we supposed to examine the dark corners of our soul when we are so busy? How are we supposed to live the examined life?”
Perhaps the distraction is the problem. Søren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish philosopher, considered the busy person the most unhappy, cut off from a guiding purpose. He wrote: “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy—to be a man who is brisk about his food and his work… What, I wonder, do these busy folks get done?”
Feeling busy also allows us to avoid being intentional about how we structure our time, caught in the rush of each important event. The blurring boundaries between office and home, between work and leisure, are making this navigation especially difficult. A growing number of Americans are working from home, and it can be tough to break away when constantly reachable by email. Social media can have the same, whirlwind-like effect.
“No one says, ‘I’m going to sit down and go on Facebook for one hour.’ You think you’re going to check one thing and then you’re just in a vortex and all of a sudden you somehow shake out of it an hour and a half later,” laments Culinary Institute of America program director, Sophie Egan, talking in a recent Heleo Conversation about how Americans have moved away from mindful, intentional eating.
So, overwhelmed and uncertain of how we’ve found ourselves so busy with things we’re not even sure we care about, what can we do? Taking time to pause, think, and examine your passions and motivations surely can’t hurt. More than anything, though, Omar Safi recommends that we re-evaluate our relationships with the things that sap our time and attention:
“We need a different relationship to work, to technology. We know what we want: a meaningful life, a sense of community, a balanced existence. It’s not just about ‘leaning in’ or faster iPhones. We want to be truly human.”
After all, being busy is a choice. What would you rather be doing?