The ‘Busy’ Trap

Something seems to have happened in the last five years. Or is it ten? The distance between myself and ‘life’, the slow pace, the ability to just sink in to a new book, one or two other projects on the ‘back burner’ for a while – all gone.

These days it doesn’t make sense to talk about a ‘back burner’. Today’s projects don’t go on burners, they live in ‘the cloud’.

John Searle, the great philosopher of mind, once remarked that our analogies of what the mind is like have simply evolved with the times, from notions of a mental power grid, to computers, to quantum neurons. It’s interesting how our talk about time and project management is similar. I can still vaguely think of projects going on burners. I love to cook. I enjoy the flow of handling several items at once. As long as those items are in front of me: at hand. If a friend wants to talk about another friend’s boyfriend’s sister’s ankle problem and the drama of her cousin’s baby, I’m lost.

And when my life and work is somewhere up in a cloud, I feel a bit lost too. Humans can only handle so many networks, so many levels of complication, especially in the abstract.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m incredibly grateful for all of the crazy busyness that has befallen me. Or rather the crazy busyness that I have chosen.

A couple friends on the sinkhole of time known as facebook posted the eponymous article from the NYTimes today. It’s cute in it’s witty way (isn’t the NYTimes usually?). And it’s true:

Notice it isn’t generally people pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs  who tell you how busy they are; what those people are is not busy but tired. Exhausted. Dead on their feet. It’s almost always people whose lamented busyness is purely self-imposed: work and obligations they’ve taken on voluntarily…

I have had times tired, exhausted, dead on my feet, but mostly just around those occasional hard deadlines with the thesis or some application or conference submission that I’ve waited until the last minute to truly look over.

On a potentially more destructive note, the author suggests that existential ills may be at the root of our modern busyness:

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.

Perhaps. In a way. And for some. I suppose reflecting on busyness is an opportunity to ask yourself if this is why you do it all; if the full calendar is what keeps you going; if you would continue to do it all if you knew no one was looking.

I remember a talk poster from Goldsmiths, University of London from a few years back (2007-8, when I lived in London briefly). It was titled something like “Zero Comments – Blogging and the Desperation of Nihilism.” Certainly there are those who write online just to escape the malaise of their daily existence. But I don’t think that touches on most people’s experience or motivation. But it’s worth thinking about.

Most importantly, if we take as somewhat fundamental that who we are and what we are here for is to help people, to somehow improve the world for future generations, we need to ask if all of this busyness is really getting it done.

I don’t know. I know I have a lot of projects floating in the cloud, somewhere on some back burner out of sight and out of mind, deep in the maddening fog of excessive metaphors. I’d like to pull them out. Somehow. Without losing what is on my front burner. Without becoming a dreary workaholic or one of those academics who complains about everything in life due to a self-imposed misery. Our author gives an optimistic note when he admits:

I am not busy. I am the laziest ambitious person I know. Like most writers, I feel like a reprobate who does not deserve to live on any day that I do not write, but I also feel that four or five hours is enough to earn my stay on the planet for one more day.

I suppose this is really how I’d describe myself most days. At least ‘laziest’ fits. Those who know me can fill in the rest. I’m six months, or more, behind on book reviews. I’m probably about 3 years behind on my Ph.D. (shhhhhh…. I’ve done good things with my time, mostly, but I definitely should be playing catch-up… now). I’m slowly losing touch with how many old friends? Yet ever so grateful (once again) to be catching up with several over the coming week.

A journal article or two need work. My room needs cleaning. And I need a good night’s rest before my 9am bus to London. Busy. But not too busy. The article comes even closer to home as it concludes:

My own resolute idleness has mostly been a luxury rather than a virtue, but I did make a conscious decision, a long time ago, to choose time over money, since I’ve always understood that the best investment of my limited time on earth was to spend it with people I love. I suppose it’s possible I’ll lie on my deathbed regretting that I didn’t work harder and say everything I had to say, but I think what I’ll really wish is that I could have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good hard laugh with Boyd. Life is too short to be busy.

Busy as my life might feel, it’s this kind of busyness, not the kind discussed at the beginning: the worrying, anxious, void kind of busy. My weekend was spent with my girlfriend meeting her family, exploring Yorkshire and wandering the second hand book stores and enjoying a creme tea in Haworth. And tonight I filled the evening playing RISK with friends, two of whom will be leaving in a month or so with a new job in America. Tomorrow in London, aside from a meeting with my supervisor and a trip to a couple libraries, I’ll have some time with more friends, one who I haven’t seen since 2008.

Yes, life is too short to be busy. But sometimes  it’s also too short to say no to busyness (the right kind of busyness).

Yet it should never be too short for little moments when we can sit back and get perspective.

Be grateful. If you’re ever ‘too busy’ – just realize that it means that you’re alive, and that you have the priviledge to do all that you do and thus the opportunity to turn at least some of that energy toward helping others. It’s a tiny realization. But if its followed with some action, however small, it can become a habit and a life of goodness.

Speaking of such a life, it is nearly one year since the untimely death of a friend of mine, Nathaniel (Nacho) Cordova. I cannot express how full a life this man lived, in part, I believe, because he took death seriously.

  • Sabrina Basquez

    There was a time in my life where I was poor of everything but youth but I still used to buy little date books and fantasize about being the type of woman who would actually need to use one. I would write things in it that I already knew in my head just because I thought that people who were worth something used those sorts of things. I had forgotten about that and that is funny because now I have two date books, two e-mails and never enough time. My busyness is indeed self imposed and I remember now the girl that dreamed she was something more than a telemarketer, waitress, housekeeper, front desk clerk, phone sales REPRESENTATIVE, etc., etc., twenty-something, POW! In being reminded, as I read your blog, of my youthful wishes, I am grateful of my impositions. It was a selfish life I lived when I was poor of everything. At least today I can say it is only money that I am poor of.

    • Justin Whitaker

      I think we can get okay in life poor of money (relatively), but never very far when we’re poor of everything else. I guess the problem pointed out by the NYTimes author is that our busyness can become superficial, gaining us more money (perhaps), and the image of being important somehow, but at the cost of real relationships and living a good life. I would have liked a bit more nuance in his piece, talking about those kinds of busyness that are indeed good; and those people who have been remarkable human beings such as H.H. the Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa, who were pretty busy in their own way.

  • http://radleyice.com Radd Icenoggle

    Love that quote from the article;

    “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.”

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  • http://www.projectmanagesoft.com Jim @ ProjectManageSoft.com

    I find that I am often overwhelmed with multiple projects. Not really multiple tasks that can get done easily and crossed off, but multiple projects made up of complex tasks that rely on each other. Its tough to break them down into simpler components that can be crossed off and completed. I think the challenge ultimately becomes identifying the work and then prioritizing. There is an incredible benefit by just doing a brain dump – listing everything you have to do (or think you do!) out on paper. Just getting it off your mind and on paper can be extremely relieving. A great book on expanding this process (writing tasks down) and then learning how to move through it all is “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. Definitely my favorite book on goal setting and prioritizing. Of course, then it is a challenge to change habits and actually implement, part of my daily fight!


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