Our Busy, Busy World

So many friends have forwarded that Tim Kreider article The Busy Trap that it would be irresponsible of me not to take a few minutes out of my busy, busy life to write about it. 

I'm glad this topic is out there and capturing people's attention, that people are starting to see through the facade of being busy, recognizing the "busy drug", as writer Heather Sellers refers to it, for what it is. I can't believe it took me so long to understand two years ago that most people are busy on purpose. 

Kreider writes, "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." It's great to hear others admitting this...that we are complicit...and asking if, short of "moving to the South of France" as one friend put it, there's anything we can do.

A few months after I realized I'd always been busy on purpose, I walked home with plenty of time on a wide open late summer afternoon. It was then I realized that crazy, over-scheduled days are physically demanding but pretty easy in pretty much every other way.

Kreider sees a busy life as proof of an important life, protection from the disturbing reality that "most of what we do doesn’t matter." He describes it as "a existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness". I think it is more than that in terms of the existential anxiety it manages to stave off and replace with tilt-a-whirl, frenetic, hurried kind of anxiety, a much easier kind to tolerate. 

"More and more people in this country no longer make or do anything tangible; if your job wasn’t performed by a cat or a boa constrictor in a Richard Scarry book I’m not sure I believe it’s necessary." (Tim Kreider)

I think of the busy contest less as a way to mask the meaninglessness of many of our jobs (maybe partly because I see it also with people who have bonafide Richard Scarry jobs), and more as a way to mask the unbearable questions about what our lives do mean. The intangible quality of what many of us do may be a contributing factor, but I tend to think it's not so much that what we do doesn't matter, but that we don't want to think about what does. Because when you think about what does (family, relationships, love) you have to accept that all these things are temporary. That whomever you love you will one day lose. Either that, or they will lose you. It could be a way off and it could be tomorrow. You have to think about the fact that we are one little microscopic spec on a planet which is a microscopic spec in a galaxy which barely factors into a constantly expanding universe which, it turns out, may only be one of many. And you also have to think about the fact that while we're worried about whether or not our kids are spending enough time outdoors, 100 million children in the world don't have another option--they don't have a home. And in a post-religious world we're forced to grapple with these big life questions pretty much on our own and there's no one out there giving us a sign as to whether we're right or wrong. The only thing we can do is try to figure out as much as we can about the meaning of human existence what kind of lasting impact we want to have. But that's all a bit of a buzz kill. And I also think it's easier to lose yourself in the pressing demands of the moment than to think about where your life is heading and whether you are  making the kind of progress you want to make. It's always easy to sink into the "I would if I could" refrain, rather than admitting that you can and you won't.

Plus of course the puppetmasters pulling the strings behind the corporate-controlled media are much happier when you continue with diversions like wondering why Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes broke up or when the MacBook Pro is coming out or why Britney Spears wore a see-through dress to whatever stupid awards ceremony she last went to. 

Busy-ness is great for business. You have to buy things you'd otherwise make, pay for services you'd otherwise do yourself or get a friend to help you with (no time for friends, and certainly no time for doing favors). As Jerry Mander points out in Four Arguments Against Television, the isolated suburban family idealized in movies and TV is the ideal consuming unit. Add to this a diet of processed foods that makes people sick, a generation of kids that is the first to be less healthy than their parents, more than a quarter of the country dependent on anti-anxiety pills (so busy! always anxious!), profligate suburban sprawl forcing gas guzzling nation that uses one quarter of the world's energy, people terrorized by the media not to let their kids out of their sight (even though it's safer now than in the 70s and 80s) and therefore sign them up for all kinds of organized activities and buy them all kinds of plastic products and technological devices to keep them inside, and you've got an amazingly efficient buying machine. What do all these busy, run ragged people do when they've finally finished paying the late fees on their bills and the mortgage on the house they can't afford? They end up in front of a screen at night because they're too exhausted to do anything but passively watch TV (or videos for the superior "I- don't-have-a-TV-I-only-watch-netflix" crew) or surfing online, thereby absorbing more of the message to keep busy and keep earning more money so they can keep spending more of it. For what? No time to ask. You're already late.

To me the best point the author makes, other than "life is too short to be busy", is drawing a distinction between being tired (those people "pulling back-to-back shifts in the I.C.U. or commuting by bus to three minimum-wage jobs" who rarely complain about being busy) and being "crazy busy", in that put-upon way, i.e., having willingly packed your days and nights so full that you can't think straight and can never catch up. I don't think that if you want to jump off that busy train that means you can't work long hours or even sleep very little. If you're devoted to a project or profession you can pour yourself into it without feeling depleted. I think that depleted feeling comes from the anxious, unfocused, scattered kind of merry-go-round brand of busy-ness. The kind that's great for business.

Almost every time someone asks - What really matters to you? What is really important? A bigger house, a faster car, a promotion, a bigger office, fancier shoes? Those are never the answers. Yet so many people spend most of the waking hours of their lives in the service of them, or in the service of preparing their kids to get into a good enough school and secure a good enough job to spend most of the waking hours of their lives in the service of them. 

Those are never the answers as to what really matters. Those things are almost always all free -- family, friendships, art, music, time outside, time to oneself. Everything that Betsy Taylor writes about in What Kids Really Want that Money Can't Buy. Yet we live as if we have unlimited time. We'll cling to any illusion -- Hollywood celebs having babies in their late 40s (using donor eggs-- but no one tells you that) and they look like they're 25 so it doesn't seem to odd -- that confirms that to be the case. Everywhere you look in our media-saturated world an existential crises about mortality appears to be outdated. Our modern-day idols--like our previous ones I guess--are ageless, and live on after their death. But the truth is -- as far as we know, trusting science, and I trust it as the best data we have -- we don't have unlimited time.

The things we really want are mostly free. But being too busy to let ourselves enjoy them, those important things that you proverbially can't put a price tag on, that will cost you.


  1. Great post.
    Nobody writes on their tombstone, "boy, was I busy --look what I accomplished." But they live as if that's their goal.

  2. Awesome. I particularly like the superimposed Scarrey pictures. I completely agree about the scariness of being non-busy - you have to sit there all alone by yourself and come up with a way to pass the time. The other thing that I've been thinking about is how freaking ridiculous all the stress and busyness is when absolutely none of these things relate to our animalistic needs of having to feed, cloth ourselves and prepare for the winter. Do you think people in other countries that have to worry about these things have the same anxiety level?

  3. Thank you Hawkeye and Eli. Very true - No one looks back with gratitude about how busy they were, and the best memories all of us have rarely seem to be connected to those frenetic periods. Running around in that crazy way is almost the opposite of a flow state, which is so deeply satisfying.
    Eli - Yes - the difficulty of sitting by yourself, facing what it is you want out of life, and whether you're moving towards or away from those goals. And just avoiding the minutiae of things, too. The "busy drug" gives a free pass (or the illusion of one) from all the little tasks to which we really should attend.
    I wonder about that, too! I often wonder if people who do have to worry about those basic needs -- food and shelter -- have insomnia, or if gets enacted in the every day anxiety of survival and we have it all stored up, worrying ourselves over so many inconsequential things. I think humans definitely have anxiety as part of our hard wiring- to allow us to escape predators mainly - and that we are not using it up for the most part now, so we find other places to put it. Thanks so much for your comments guys. I so agree Eli that the stress and busyness is "freaking ridiculous" and I'm really trying to stop living as if we live in a dangerous place where that level of stress is warranted.

  4. I have to say...as long as I have some alone time, I actually like being busy. It keeps my melancholy streak at bay.

  5. That's a really succinct way of putting it...you do seem like one of the more cheerful busy types rather than anxious busy types

  6. Yeah, I had total idleness after I quit my law job (for a while). It wasn't good. I did better writing (that book with you) when I was busy. It forces you to prioritize.

  7. Wonderful post.

    A few years ago, I made a conscious decision to stop saying that I was "busy".

    With positive effects....

  8. Bearette - Totally agree about how writing that book together forced me to prioritize. And in general having lots of work I see as different than the "crazy, busy, I can't stop for five minutes to call a friend back (but I can complain for a half hour about how busy I am) dynamic" that's so prevalent now. You seem like you pack your days but you don't appear like a spinning top. I really loved how easy it was to work on that book...first thing in the morning...it was a compulsion...loved that.

    littlegreenvillage -- It's so liberating, isn't it? Just a few days ago I realized I wanted to make a similar change with how I talk about writing. When people ask me about it, I generally complain that I am doing a lot of freelance writing but mostly not my own stuff...when that really isn't true. I do tons of my own writing...it's just no one ever really sees it for the most part. But that's partly by choice, too...(not being diligent enough about "getting it out there"). Thanks guys for your comments!

  9. Did you see the article in The Nation today with some practical solutions?
    "To Achieve Work-Family Balance, Americans Have to Work Less"


    Do you agree?

  10. Woh -how come I hadn't seen this comment? Okay - let me read it and see what I think. Thanks!

  11. Aw, this was a really nice post. Taking a few minutes and actual effort to
    create a great article… but what can I say…
    I procrastinate a lot and never seem to get anything done.

  12. Wow! Thanks for reading...We all procrastinate. I'm sure eventually you get things done...


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